Comprising, as it does, each and every one of the 32 masters she recorded for the Modern and Kent labels between 1954 and 1959 – not to mention a further nine alternate takes, seven of which are previously unissued – this double CD is a dream come true for the fans of Etta James, one of the most fabulous and respected figures in the history of R&B music. No more scratching around on compilation CDs – actually, many of these tracks are brand new to the digital format – because here are all of Miss Peaches’ legendary pre-Chess recordings on one great package.
The quondam Jamesetta Hawkins’ first session, cut on Thanksgiving Eve 1954, when she was just 16, yielded Roll With Me, Henry. “Jean Mitchell and her sister Abbysinia came from New Orleans and were Creole-looking people,” wrote our subject in her autobiography. “ Jean was my age; Abbye was eight or nine years older. Jean and I started singing together. Soon Abbye joined in and, just like that, we became the Creolettes. We were project girls imitating the young rhythm and blues of the time. Mainly, though, we were intrigued with vocal harmony. We developed a tight three-way blend, imitating groups like the Spaniels, the Swallows, the Chords and the Spiders. One afternoon the Creolettes were singing at a record hop when who should show up but Hank Ballard and his superfine Midnighters. We were thrilled. When they heard us sing, they said something encouraging and, man, that’s all we needed to hear. When they sang Work With Me, Annie, the place went wild. Next day the song was still on my mind. Answer songs were big back then, and then it occurred to me – why not answer Hank’s hit? I liked doing spunky shit. So I wrote Roll With Me, Henry, a pushy little jiveass reply.”
That blockbuster initiation was produced by the fabled Johnny Otis, the hipster also responsible for renaming Ms H and her gal pals Etta James and the Peaches: “The Peaches were pissed because I was getting the glory, but I was even more pissed than the Peaches because Georgia Gibbs came out with her Suzy Creamcheese version. I was happy to have any success, but I was enraged to see Her Nibbs singing the song on the Ed Sullivan Show while I was singing it in some funky dive in Watts.” Providing the voice of “Henry” on Etta’s original was Richard Berry, who went on to sing on and write many other songs for her, some of which, like Good Rockin’ Daddy, also feature back-ups by those fabulous chicks, the Dreamers. Elsewhere, Etta’s backing vocalists also include the Flairs and Jesse Belvin, not forgetting the great duets she cut with her boyfriend Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows as Betty & Dupree.
Like many of her contemporaries, Etta was greatly influenced by the sanctified music to which she was exposed in church. “At age five, I became a little singing star. Mama started taking me to St Paul Baptist Church when I was still a toddler. I felt like I was born into that church. I loved it. We had one of the biggest, baddest, hippest choirs anywhere, the Echoes Of Eden. Our choirmaster, Professor James Earl Hines, was my first and heaviest musical mentor, the cat who taught me to sing. He was married, acted gay as a goose, and I was crazy about him. What’s more, our minister, Reverend Branham, was one of the most flamboyant in the city. The man could preach. His sermons were so fiery and the choir so hot that white folks would come all the way from Hollywood, sit in the back, and just groove. Glittering gospel stars sang in our church – Rosetta Tharpe, the Sallie Martin Singers.” Witness that influence here on Etta’s rockin’ renditions of That’s All and Strange Things Happening, both originated by gospel legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
In an attempt to recapture the glory of her debut, Modern despatched Etta to New Orleans. “Where I recorded in Cosimo Matassa’s famous studio, the home of Fats Domino. The Biharis also sent along Jimmy Beasley to play piano and Maxwell Davis to supervise. They used a lots of players associated with Fats and Little Richard – Lee Allen, Justin Adams, Dave Bartholomew and Earl Palmer. We cut some good sides like The Pick-Up (where I carry on a sexy conversation with Harold Battiste’s tenor), Tough Lover (which I wrote and delivered in a heavy Little Richard bag), Market Place, Baby, Baby, Every Night and How Big A Fool. The style was still nitty-gritty hard-rocking R&B with a slight gumbo flavour, but there were no big hits. ‘If you wanna be a star,’ Bobby Lester of the Moonglows told me, ‘get on Chess’.” And get on Chess, Etta would. But that’s another story.
Not only has Etta James made some wonderful records in her illustrious career – the earliest of which are superbly anthologised here – she has also authored one of my absolute favourite books, the brilliant autobiography Rage To Survive, from which all of the above quotations are borrowed. If you dig truly great R&B music, first buy this fantastic double CD, and then get the book. They both ROCK!
by Mick Patrick