Early Etta James material really holds up

Etta James

The Essential Modern Records Collection

Virgin/EMI

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By Chris M. Junior

She really came of age as a singer in the 1960s, recording for various labels and releasing some of her best-known songs, such as the smooth “At Last” and the sassy “Tell Mama.”

But during the previous decade, a young Etta James made her initial mark on pop and R&B as part of the Modern Records roster. Virgin/EMI has assembled 15 of James’ early singles and B sides, and it’s a compilation that might surprise fans who only know her for those aforementioned signature tunes.

All 15 songs on “The Essential Modern Records Collection” were released between 1955 and 1957, when James was still in her teens. Nevertheless, she displayed a vocal maturity and confidence at that time, especially on the risqué “The Wallflower” (a.k.a. “Roll With Me Henry”) and the not-quite-an-anthem “W-O-M-A-N.” The silly-yet-catchy “Shortnin’ Bread Rock” is sheer adolescent fun and reminiscent of what Frankie Lymon did so well, and there are shades of fellow 1950s great Little Richard (one of James’ former tourmates) throughout “Tough Lover.”

The packaging for “The Essential Modern Records Collection” may be on the skimpy side, but the music holds up its end of the deal.

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