Today we pay tribute to a true legend of R & B who passed away last year, Etta James. She made her splash here in Chicago, as her new deal with Chess Records in 1960 yielded her signature song, “At Last”, along with other pop and R & B hits. James lived a rugged life and that came through in her interpretive abilities, which influenced generations of singers. In honor of James, please grab your iPod or MP3 player, hit shuffle, and share the first 10 songs that come up.
Roberto Jordán – Castillos de Algodón (40 Temas Originales): Jordán was a fairly ordinary Mexican pop singer of the ‘60s and ‘70s who found success covering, among other things, American bubblegum songs. What is interesting is he sings them just like any of the conventional pop songs, with no attempt to appeal to teens, just relying on the catchiness of the tunes. This is a solid version of a 1910 Fruitgum Company song, “1910 Cotton Candy Castle”, which, interestingly enough, was a deep cut, the final track on their Indian Giver album.
Everyday Hudson – Laugh, Funny Funny (Bubblegum Classics, Volume One): This track is an early tune by The Hudson Brothers. This song is attempting to split the difference between The Archies and The Rascals, which isn’t a put down, by the way.
Jack White – Weep Themselves To Sleep (Blunderbuss): I was frankly surprised by the contest to see who could go more overboard praising Jack White’s first solo effort. Is it a good album? Yes, it is. But it’s not a great one, as Jack tries to navigate his love for traditions of blues and rock music with his desire to sort of subvert them, but in a tongue in cheek way. He’s enough of a craftsman that this can result in plenty of enjoyable tracks, but yields more than its fair share of duds. I like this mid-tempo semi-epic rock tune with pretty piano flourishes and an inventive stuttering guitar solo.
Elvis Costello & The Attractions – ...And In Every Home (Imperial Bedroom): While this LP is considered a masterpiece in some circles, I always found the overall effort to be too mannered and busy. I think Squeeze’s East Side Story, produced by Elvis, to be a much better Beatlesque semi-experimental pop album. This is a really nice song, but the overdone strings and horns don’t quite mesh as well as they should, even as I get what he was trying to get at. But the chorus is rock solid.
The Kinks – Strangers (Lola Versus Powerman and The Moneygoround Part One): This piano based ballad sung and composed by Dave Davies is the second track on the first Kinks album of the ‘70s. This song kind of sounds like what would have happened if John Lennon joined The Kinks. Dave Davies has a really interesting vocal quality – he’s not really a good singer, but he is really expressive and he sounds great on this tune. Mott The Hoople comes to mind on this number – wonder if Ian Hunter found inspiration from this song.
Guided By Voices – Hold On Hope (Do The Collapse): This is the GBV song best suited for getting out your cigarette lighter and holding it up into the air. This was during the period where anything these guys did was disappointing, because of the tunes or the production or something else. I never got too down on Guided By Voices, because Robert Pollard’s prolix nature ensured that every album would have some non-starters. As long as he could come up with beauties like this, it was fine with me. Glen Campbell does a really nice version of this song.
The Dickies – You Drive Me Ape (You Big Gorilla) (The Incredible Shrinking Dickies): Singer Leonard Graves Phillips would intro this song by emphasizing how stupid and basic it is, and he’s right about that. Which is why it is so fun.
Question Mark And The Mysterians – Turn Around Baby (Don’t Ever Look Back)(96 Tears: 30 Original Records): A nifty mid-tempo R & B track with their trademark organ and the wonderful vocals of Question Mark himself (a/k/a Rudy Martinez). I saw these guys about five or six years ago at The Empty Bottle, with their original lineup, and they put on a wonderful show.
The Standells – Why Pick On Me? (Nuggets): A nifty minor key garage rock pop tune from this L.A. band best known for “Dirty Water”. This song reminds me a little bit of Sonny Bono’s “Laugh At Me”. It was written by their producer Ed Cobb.
Pixies – Ed Is Dead (Come On Pilgrim): A track from the debut EP from the Pixies. This is instantly recognizable as Pixies, but Black Francis wasn’t quite in the zone yet. Not a bad tune, of course, just a precursor to the greatness that was just around the corner (Surfer Rosa). Joey Santiago’s guitar skills stand out quite a bit here.