Crazy Feeling : Etta James ©2002JCMarion


Jamesetta Hawkins was an aspiring gospel singer from Oakland, California. She also began to dabble in R & B music and was part of a teenage girl trio called The Creolettes. In the early nineteen fifties she moved to Los Angeles and was a student at Fremont High School which produced a number of top R & B singers. By 1954 she was seen in performance at a local talent show by Johnny Otis who felt that this was a young woman with a lot to say and had the promise of being a force in the Rhythm & Blues world. Otis also gave the young singer a new name by transposing her first name and so she became Etta James. Otis got her a meeting with the Bihari Brothers who ran the Modern Records label, and they soon set up a recording session for her. The result of this first session resulted in one of the classic R & B tunes in history. Etta with two backup singers named The Peaches, vocalist Richard Berry, and the Maxwell Davis combo performed a number that was an answer record to The Midnighters huge hit "Work With Me Annie". The song was called "Roll With Me Henry" and was released on Modern #947 right after New Year's day of 1955. The flip side was a blues ballad called "Hold Me Squeeze Me". To avoid further controversy, the name of the song was changed to "The Wallflower" on all future copies.

By February, "The Wallflower" is one of the fastest selling R & B records in the country. The demand is greater than Modern records can keep up with, which is a good barometer of the new demand for R & B discs in 1955. In Cleveland, station WJW Alan Freed's old home, is the only outlet in that city that does not go along with the ban on the record which seems to boost its attraction even more. Etta James, the new "blonde bombshell" of Rhythm & Blues, goes out on her first extended tour along with The Peaches, Richard Berry, and Johnny "Guitar" Watson on what is called the Modern Records Caravan. The show will tour the Midwest throughout the spring and then head for the Southeastern states. In May Modern tries to go to the well one more time with Etta James, The Peaches, and Richard Berry recording "Hey Henry" on #957. The flip side is "Be Mine". In July Etta and The Peaches are signed to the Top Ten R & B Revue to tour the country for two months beginning in September. Also on the bill are Bo Diddley, Joe Turner, The Clovers, Five Keys, Charlie & Ray, Gene & Eunice, and the paul "Hucklebuck" Williams band.

In late August, a new Modern Records release by Etta James is out on #962. The songs are "Good Rockin' Daddy" and "Crazy Feeling". In late October the Top Ten R & B Revue plays Carnegie Hall in New York, the first time the big beat has been heard at the world famous concert location. In mid November Etta appears at an all star R & B show at the Apollo Theater in New York with Dr. Jive (Tommy Smalls). On the bill with Etta James are The Heartbeats, Flamingos, Jacks, Harptones, Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf, Dakota Staton, Bill Doggett Trio, and the band of Willis "Gatortail" Jackson. "Good Rockin' Daddy" is one of the top selling R & B records in the country, especially popular on the West Coast. Late in the month Etta James appears in Buffalo with George "Hound Dog" Lorenz as part of a show that features Charlie & Ray, The Jacks, Wynonie Harris, and Roy Gaines. At the end of a big year in 1955, Modern releases "W-O-M-A-N" and "That's All" on #972.

1956 opens with Etta doing a number of shows on the West Coast, some with Johnny Otis and others with name R & B performers. She does a week at the 5-4 Ballroom in Los Angeles with Amos Milburn and his band, and plays club dates with Dolly Cooper and Johnny "Guitar" Watson. In March Modern Records releases the new Etta James single - "Number One" and "I'm A Fool" on #984. The label lists her as Etta "Miss Peaches" James. two months later "Shortnin' Bread Rock" (a cover of the record by Kay Cee Jones) and "Tears Of Joy" are released on Modern #988. Etta appears on Alan Freed's CBS network radio show in L.A. performing a cleaned up "Dance With Me Henry" (the song is even the subject of an Abbot & Costello movie !) and "Crazy Feeling". In September "Tough Lover" and "Fools We Mortals Be" are released on Modern #998. The label still lists James as "Miss Peaches", and this time the record begins to sell well in both L.A. and the Midwest especially Kansas City and St. Louis. Late in the year Modern Records drops the "Miss Peaches" nickname and does a recording session in New York with local musicians, a departure from the usual James studio time. The result is the late November release of "Good Looking" and "Then I'll Care" on #1007. In December an interesting pairing takes place at the Club Baby Grand in Harlem as Etta James shares the stage with Big Maybelle. Also on the bill are The Clovers and James Moody and his band. At year's end Modern Records issues a R & B LP album featuring the label's performers including three tunes by Etta.

In March Etta (without The Peaches) embarks on a tour of one nighters with the Buddy Griffin band throughout the South. That month "The Pickup" and "Market Place" are released on Modern #1016. In April Etta hits the road again this time with Bo Diddley, Clifton Chenier, and Larry Birdsong for one nighters in the Midwest. In June James records "Come What May" and the pop oldie "By The Light Of The Silvery Moon" on Modern #1022. "Moon" has also been recorded by Little Richard and Jimmy Bowen. In October Etta plays the 5-4 Ballroom in L.A. with The Dells.

By mid 1957 the outlook for Etta James was not good as traditional Rhythm & Blues performers were cast aside in favor of younger more pop music oriented styles. There were a few exceptions such as Joe Turner and Fats Domino, but it was not a good time for the pioneers of Rock. Soon Modern Records was discontinued and some of its artists were kept on by the new company on the Kent label. Besides Etta, B.B. King and Jesse Belvin were also signed to the new label. The company's other record label Crown Records would concentrate on issuing LPs. In the spring of 1958 Etta James is still at it hitting the road with another big traveling R & B Revue, one of the last that would tour the country. On the bill with Etta are The Midnighters, Bo Diddley, Little Willie John, Beulah Bryant, Tiny Topsy, and the cal Green band. The show is called "The Big Rhythm & Blues Cavalcade of 1958". In July "Sunshine Of Love" and "Baby Baby Every Night" is released on Kent #304. By mid 1959 the R & B years were over for James and now she pondered her future in music. Then came one of the major re-inventions of a pioneer performer coming to terms with changing times.

In early 1960 James signed with Leonard Chess in Chicago. He had a vision of showcasing Etta James as an adult oriented blues singer with pop music potential. For the next fifteen years she remained with Chess mostly recording on that company's Argo and Cadet labels. For the first time Etta James hit the national pop charts beginning almost immediately. "All I Could Do was Cry" (Argo #5359) and "My Dearest Darling" (Argo #5368) both charted in 1960 followed by "Trust In Me" (Argo #5385) and "Don't Cry Baby" (Argo #5393) the next year. In 1962 "Something's Got A Hold On Me" (Argo #5409) and "Stop The Wedding" (Argo #5418) charted and in 1963 "Pushover" was her biggest hit in years on Argo #5437. Personal problems plagued James during the mid sixties, but then in 1967 Etta James was back with a big seller called "Tell Mama" on Cadet #5578, and followed that with "Security" on Cadet #5594 in 1968. That was the last single to chart for James as she now concentrated on recording albums for Chess.

Some of the better albums released over the years by James are 1964's live set called "Etta Rocks The House" for Chess, "Queen Of Soul" for Chess in 1965, and "Tell Mama" for Cadet in 1968. "Peaches" for Chess in 1973 and "Peaches Part Two" fifteen years later, and "Live At Maria's Memory Lane" for Fantasy in 1986, led into the 90s and "Stickin' To My Guns" for Island in 1991. Other albums of interest from the 90s were "Mystery Lady : Songs Of Billie Holiday on the Private Music label, two live albums for Rhino and On The Spot, three "Best Of . . ." on MCA (Chess masters) and 1998's "12 Songs Of Christmas" on Private Music. Etta James proved to the world that she could change with the times and remain a viable force in modern American music. This is no easy task and very few can pull it off, but - Etta James was more than equal to the task and the world is better off for it.

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