Etta Was Singing But Few Were Listening

Originally posted October 1, 2007

What was everybody listening to in 1978?

The top singles of the year, according to Cash Box, were:

“Night Fever” by the Bee Gees
“Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees
“Shadow Dancing” by Andy Gibb
“Kiss You All Over” by Exile
“Three Times A Lady” by the Commodores
“Hot Child In The City” by Nick Gilder
“Boogie Oogie Oogie” by A Taste of Honey
“Emotion” by Samantha Sang
“You’re The One That I Want” by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John
“Miss You” by the Rolling Stones

Not an inspiring bunch, is it? The two Bee Gee’s hits – especially “Stayin’ Alive” – have aged far better than I thought they would. “Miss You” still slinks along nicely, and Nick Gilder’s only hit still has an odd appeal. The other six, well, they kinda suck, don’t they? (And the Travolta/Newton-John hit still annoys the grammarian in me with its egregious error. It should be: “You’re The One Who I Want,” but I admit that would have been more difficult to sing.)

Were the albums any better in 1978?

Saturday Night Fever soundtrack by the Bee Gees et al.
The Stranger by Billy Joel
Grease soundtrack by various artists
Some Girls by the Rolling Stones
Double Vision by Foreigner
Running On Empty by Jackson Browne
Point Of Know Return by Kansas
Slowhand by Eric Clapton
Rumours by Fleetwood Mac
Natural High by the Commodores

Well, that’s a little better. Grease never did much for me, and I generally left arena rock alone, so the Foreigner and Kansas entries leave me cold, too, but the rest of it’s not bad. I always thought the Commodores were a better singles group than an album act, but that’s a minor point. The rest of it is pretty good.

And between the two lists, we get a pretty good idea of what American radios and stereos were playing in 1978, when disco and its sequins were gliding onto the dance floor, utterly oblivious to the irony of new wave (while punk was glowering in through the window, making up its mind that it was glad to be outside).

It was a time of transition on the airwaves and in the studios, and the losers, it seems to me, were not so much the traditional rockers – Jackson Browne, Bob Seger, Fleetwood Mac and the rest – as those who performed traditional R&B. The highest-ranking traditional R&B record I find on the Cash Box list of the top hundred singles of the year is “The Closer I Get To You” by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway at No. 31. The O’Jays pop in at No. 43 with “Use Ta Be My Girl,” and then it’s “Dance With Me” by Peter Brown with Betty Wright at No. 55.

Maybe I’m missing some, but even if I overlook one or two, the conclusion would be the same: Very few in the general audience were listening to traditional R&B in 1978. That’s not a surprising conclusion, by any means, and I don’t expect anyone to be stunned by it. My point is that if very few people in 1978 were listening to traditional R&B, then very few people that year were listening to Etta James. And that’s truly too bad.

About ten years removed from her astounding album Tell Mama, recorded in 1968 at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, James went to work in Hollywood with famed producer Jerry Wexler and the cream of Southern California’s studio musicians:

Jeff Porcaro on drums; Chuck Rainey on bass; Larry Carlton on rhythm guitar; Cornell Dupree on lead guitar; Brian Ray on slide guitar; Richard Tee and Keith Johnson on keyboards; Tom Roady on other percussion; Plas Johnson and Jim Horn on saxophone; and a background chorus led by Alexander Hamilton that included the great Merry Clayton.

Deep In The Night came out on Warner Bros. in 1978, and, relatively speaking, nobody heard it. The last of James’ nine Top 40 hits had been ten years earlier, from the Tell Mama sessions, and despite the crack crew, no one was listening.

All-Music Guide says: “Originally released . . . to scant acclaim in 1978, this Jerry Wexler-produced masterpiece finds James in astounding voice with a batch of great material to apply her massive interpretive powers to. The band, including the cream of the late-’70s Los Angeles session hot-shots . . . lays it down soulful and simple and the result is a modern-day R&B classic. Highlights abound throughout, but special attention must be turned to James’ takes on ‘Only Women Bleed’ and the Eagles’ ‘Take It to the Limit.’”

The two songs AMG singles out are likely the highlights of the ten tracks on the album, although I thought that “Lovesick Blues” and the title track, “Deep In The Night,” worked very well, too. The album – truly a good one from start to finish – ends with a reworking of “I’d Rather Go Blind,” James’ 1968 classic album track from Tell Mama, this time titled “Blind Girl” for some reason. It’s just too bad no one seemed to be listening.

(A quick check at GEMM finds the album widely available on vinyl; copies of the out-of-print CD listed there are more rare and are priced between about $24 to about $58. A link through AMG shows a couple of copies of the CD available for about $40 each.)

Laying Beside You
Piece Of My Heart
Only Women Bleed
Take It To The Limit
Deep In The Night
Lovesick Blues
Strange Man
Sugar On The Floor
Sweet Touch Of Love
Blind Girl

Etta James – Deep In The Night [1978]


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