“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.
“Record Row’ also told of rip-offs of young Black artists by some record companies, explained in detail by James, and discussed Vee-Jay’s fabled Calvin Carter. According to Butler, he “didn’t play anything, but could hear everything.” The documentary also shed light on many other little known facts about the glory days of original Black R&B.
Happily, James paid homage to the Spaniels and their groundbreaking “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight”-one of 200 songs written by Hudson-which introduced Black R&B to whites in 1954. Butler noted how the Spaniels’ biggest hit was ripped off by the white McGuire Sisters’ syrupy cover of Hudson’s composition.
One of Hudson’s last records, in 2005, was a stunning version of “At Last”-made famous by James in 1961. During our private, in-depth 1991 interviews in Gary, Ind., for my authorized biography, “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight: The Story of the Spaniels,” Hudson disclosed intimate details about his liaisons with James in the old days. Musically, he liked her rollicking version of “Tell Mama” more than “At Last.”
Two years prior to his death from cancer, in January 2007, Hudson called to tell me he was about to record “At Last” with the Spaniels as a special tribute to James. He also reminded me of our conversations about the two of them during my research.
Although James’ “At Last” was much better known, tears come to my eyes every time I listen to Hudson’s moving version. His unmistakable, smooth voice and precise, Frank Sinatra-like phrasing-backed by the unparalleled Spaniels’ background-is the peak.
So the great James is gone, joining Hudson, Fuqua, Faye Adams, Johnny Ace, La-Vern Baker, Hank Ballard, James Brown, Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Gerald Gregory, Ivory Joe Hunter, Bobby Lester, Frankie Lymon, Clyde McPhatter, Billy Preston, David Ruffin, Sonny Til, Tony Williams and many others. But helped by James, fine documentaries such as “Record Row” leave a lasting memory.