The Classics

A Pair of Firsts

Stevie WonderOtis Redding

They happened five years apart, but January 27th is a pretty historical day in the careers of two Soul music giants, because it was on this day that bothOtis Redding and Stevie Wonder proved a whole bunch of critics wrong.

The first came for Redding, who unfortunately didn’t get a chance to see the release of his new single(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay on this day in 1968. The single’s release came 47 days after the legendary singer died in a Wisconsin plane crash. Leading up to the song’s recording, he told anyone that would listen (and many that wouldn’t) that the tune would be his first pop No. 1. Most dismissed the track as a change in Otis’ sound that wouldn’t last long.

Though Otis wasn’t around long enough to test out the staying power of the new sound, he was right in his prediction. The song would hit No. 1 just a few months later, marking his first – and only – No. 1 pop tune. It would later become one of the first four songs to be given a “million-air” award, marking its one-millionth radio play.

Exactly five years later, on this day in 1973, the new Billboard charts were released. There was a new No. 1 atop the Hot 100 singles: Stevie Wonder’s newest tune, Superstition.

That wouldn’t surprise many. Stevie had a whole bunch of chart-topping hits in his hey day, but the significance of this No. 1 listing is that it came 10 years after his first hit, Fingertips- Part 2, topped the charts.

 

Like Redding, many doubters wondered if Stevie would top the charts again. He had several songs crack the top five (My Cherie Amore at No. 4, Uptight andSigned, Sealed, Delivered at No. 3, I Was Made to Love Her and For Once in My Life at No. 2), he couldn’t seem to clear that hurdle to the top of the charts again.

That changed with the Talking Book album and theSuperstition single.

Five of Wonder’s next 10 singles would top the charts. That included his next release, You Are the Sunshine of My Life, as well as I Wish, Sir Duke andYou Haven’t Done Nothin’ (which features backing vocals by the Jackson 5).

Not a bad run at all.

Etta James

Etta JamesThough there have beenseveral sad news reports about the deteriorating health of blues legend Etta James recently, there’s a break in the clouds on this day to wish the happiest of birthdays to the formerChess Records star.

And it’s with great hope that I’ll be able to write her story again next year while wishing her a happy 74th. Because Etta definitely has a story worth telling.

Etta was born on this day in 1938 as Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, California. Her mother was an unmarried 14-year-old African-American girl namedDorothy Hawkins who reportedly told Etta that her father was the famous white pool player, Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone.

By the age of five, Etta was already taking vocal lessons from James Earle Hines, musical director of the Echoes of Eden choir at the St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles. In 1950, at age 12, James’ family moved to San Francisco, where she teamed up with two other young girls to form a doo-wop group.

When James and her bandmates were 14, famous Peacock Records producer and world-renowned bandleader Johnny Otis had them audition. The group chose to sing an answer tune to Hank Ballard‘s Work With Me, Annie, that they called Roll With Me Henry. Otis liked the song and, without her mother’s permission, James went with the group back to Los Angeles in 1954 to record it. The song was released under the Modern Recordslabel by the renamed title The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry). It was released in 1955 under the group name The Peaches.

The song became a No. 1 R&B hit, but the Peaches soon disbanded. Unfazed, James went out as a solo singer and began recording singles for a few different small labels. He vocal power earned her a spot on tours that featured Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Otis Reddingand others.

In 1960, James signed a solo recording deal with Chess Records subsidiary Argo. Her first sides with the company were duets with Harvey Fuqua; If I Can’t Have You and Spoonful. She had her first major solo hit with the R&B-styled tune, All I Could Do Is Cry. The song quickly shot up the Billboard R&B Chart, peaking at No. 2 in 1960. It was followed by the Top-5 R&B hit, My Dearest Darling the same year. Around that time, James also sang backing vocals on Chuck Berry‘s hit, Back in the USA and released her debut album on Chess entitled At Last!

In later years, as most know, the title tune of that album reached a new level of popularity when Barack Obama chose it as the first dance at his presidential inauguration. James, at the time, was outspoken about Obama’s choice of Beyonce to sing the song instead of herself. You may remember, it was Beyonce that starred as James in the movie Cadillac Records.

James’ 1965 album, entitled Queen of Soul came a good two years before Aretha Franklin started her quest to take that title. Her next five albums came on Cadet, which was a re-branding of the original Argo name. In 1973, James moved over to the main Chess label and released four more albums before her 17-year run with the company ended. Between 1980 and 2006, James continued to tour and released 14 more albums on five different labels. Her last release was the 2006 platter All the Way on RCA Victor.

But even as her health is failing, her musical catalogue is still being discovered by new generations of music lovers, further proving that people may get sick or die, but good music lives forever.