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Etta James' Earliest Works Rolled Out in Boxed Sets

September 17, 1993|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Etta James' "Roll With Me Henry" was one of the most celebrated of the many R&B "answer" singles of the '50s, and it's the centerpiece of a Flair Records compilation spotlighting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member's earliest recordings.

Titled "R&B Dynamite," the 22-song package is one of two James retrospectives in the stores. The more recent arrival is MCA Records' two-disc "The Essential Etta James," which focuses on the singer's acclaimed Chess Records work in the '60s and '70s.

James was born in Los Angeles in 1938 and began singing as a child in church. By her teens, she was living in San Francisco, where by age 15 she was in a vocal group and wrote "Roll With Me Henry" as an answer to Hank Ballard & the Midnighters' "Work With Me Annie," which spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1954.

The work in the title was widely interpreted by teens as referring to sex, although disc jockeys tried to calm parents' concerns by insisting the term meant dance . The debate over the record intensified when the Midnighters released their follow-up: "Annie Had a Baby."

Bandleader Johnny Otis heard James sing "Roll With Me Henry" at a dance in San Francisco and brought James to Modern Records in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day in 1954 to record the song, according to the liner notes in the Flair album.

Because of all the controversy over the Midnighters' records, the name of the song was changed to "The Wallflower." The record's key line, however, remained "roll with me Henry," and it rolled to the top of the R&B charts in March, 1955.

Shortly after its release, Georgia Gibbs recorded a tamer version of the song--retitled "Dance With Me Henry"--that spent three weeks at No. 1 on the nation's pop charts.

James had only one other R&B hit in the '50s (1955's "Good Rockin' Daddy"), but the Flair tracks capture well the disarming spirit of the era's most appealing R&B works.

The Chess box set showcases a more mature artist.

"By the time I got to Chess Records, I was ready to upgrade," James says in David Ritz's liner notes. "I was tired of Georgia Gibbs copying my songs for the white market and outearning me a hundred to one."

While at Chess, James registered almost two dozen Top 40 R&B hits, but still had limited success in the pop field--her highest-charting pop single, 1963's "Pushover," only reached No. 25.

That song is in the box set, along with 43 others, including such varied material as "All I Could Do Is Cry" (which was co-written by Berry Gordy Jr.), "If I Can't Have You" (a duet with Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows), "Almost Persuaded" (which had been a huge country hit for David Houston) and "You Can Leave Your Hat On" (one of three Randy Newman songs in the set).

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