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Etta James enhanced 'Record Row' and 'Cadillac Records'

Richard Carter | 5/23/2013, 4:28 p.m.
Colony Records was my place for original Black R&B

"You thought you'd found a good girl, one to love you and give you the world..."-Etta James, "Tell Mama" (Cadet Records, 1967)

In the wake of last month's death of Etta James at age 73, millions of younger people undoubtedly thought of 2008's "Cadillac Records." Although Beyonce Knowles gave an electrifying performance as James, there were many historical omissions in the film, which was touted as the story of the pioneering, white-owned Chess Records.

When I heard about James' passing, other special memories came rushing to mind. The most prominent were her loving narration of a fine 1997 Public Broadcasting System television documentary on original Black rhythm and blues, and her "casual" relationship with the late James "Pookie" Hudson of the Spaniels. More later on the latter.

The one-hour PBS special-"Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm and Blues"-was a treasure trove for lovers of R&B vocal groups. And those of us in the know were very disappointed by the shortcomings of the much longer, albeit enjoyable, big-screen movie.

Enhanced by James' moving narration, the remarkable TV documentary-in which this writer was credited with "Additional Special Thanks to Dick Carter"-discussed '50s-'60s record labels such as Brunswick, Chess, Chance, Constellation, Curtom, King, One-derful! and Vee-Jay. These Chicago companies were both white and Black-owned.

James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. When heard four years later on "Record Row," you knew she was telling it like it really was. And watching her doing part of 1962's "Something's Got a Hold On Me" brought me out of my chair. Unlike "Cadillac Records," the PBS vehicle, helped by James, accurately detailed the meteoric rise and fall of Chess and the other independent record labels on a 10-block stretch of South Michigan Avenue in Chicago-a microcosm of this unique music.

The big-screen movie concentrated on Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry and James-each of whom I love-but snubbed Chess vocal groups. The Coronets, Falcons, Five Notes, Flamingos, Hollywood Flames, Johnnie & Joe and Lee Andrews & the Hearts were ignored. Incredibly, it also didn't mention the legendary Moonglows, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

It's really too bad for discerning R&B and doo-wop devotees that the otherwise entertaining film didn't acknowledge these aggregations. Today's audiences would have been blown away by the Moonglows' "blow harmony"-an R&B sound never equaled.

My frustration over omissions in "Cadillac Records" was resurrected in 2010 with the passing of Moonglows founder Harvey Fuqua. However, he was prominently singled out by James in "Record Row"-a poignant true story full of doo-wop group harmony.

The absence in the film of the aforementioned vocal groups-who helped put doo-wop and R&B on the map-was a sacrilege. Also named only in passing was co-owner Phil Chess, brother of Leonard Chess. The latter was played by Adrien Brody.

In addition to Phil Chess, those interviewed on PBS and commented on by James included Marshall Chess-the son of Leonard-Vee-Jay President Ewart Abner, the famed Dick Clark and musicologist Portia Maultsby. Insights were also offered by the Impressions' Jerry Butler ("For Your Precious Love") and Curtis Mayfield ("Superfly"); the guttural Bo Diddley; Gene Chandler ("Duke of Earl"); Fontella Bass ("Rescue Me"); and the Dells' Chuck Barksdale ("Oh, What a Night"), among others.