Remembering Etta Jones
After a year, Ella Johnson returned to her brother's band, and Etta Jones started her solo career. However, she was hardly an overnight success. In fact, she was not an over-year or even an over-decade success. Her first records for Black & White went nowhere. A series of sides for RCA Victor flopped as well. Jones worked clubs on 52nd Street and sang with bands led by Pete Johnson, J.C. Heard, Barney Bigard, Luther Henderson and Sonny Stitt. Her longest association was with the Earl Hines band from 1949 to 1952. During these years, Jones resisted efforts to push her toward the more commercial R&B market. She was determined to find success on her own terms and that meant singing jazz.
Unfortunately, determination alone doesn't pay the bills. As the world of nightclubs and big bands began their slow fade to black in the 1950s, Jones found herself taking day jobs to carry her through the dry spells. She worked as an elevator operator, a seamstress and an album stuffer. In 1956, she finally got the chance to make her first long-playing record. Unfortunately, The Jones Girl...Sings, Sings, Sings, released by King Records, came and went without notice. Jones remained an obscure jazz singer struggling to make ends meet.
All of that finally changed in 1960 with the success of "Don't Go to Strangers," the title song from what was only the singer's second LP. "Don't Go to Strangers" sold a staggering one million copies. What makes that feat so impressive is that neither Jones nor her record label, Prestige, thought they were making a hit record. Don't Go to Strangers is a jazz album featuring a quintet of first class musicians and a collection of very good tunes. There is nothing even remotely commercial about the album. However, in one of those inexplicable whims of the marketplace, "Don't Go to Strangers" struck a chord with audiences, and Jones found herself in the somewhat unique position of having a hit record with a good song. Don't Go to Strangers established her as a jazz star even as the title song brought her audiences usually more interested in pop and R&B.
After polishing her craft for seventeen years, Etta Jones was ready to make the most of her new career opportunities, artistically speaking, that is. In typical fashion, Jones made no real effort to return to the pop charts. Over the next few years, she recorded a series of albums for Prestige all of which featured great songs and great musicians. Even on her orchestral albums, So Warm and From the Heart, Jones steered clear of the kind of schmaltzy arrangements and sterile choirs that Dinah Washington was drowning in during the same period. While her Prestige records at times feel hastily assembled (a couple of them were in fact cobbled together from different sessions), each album contains some definitive Etta Jones. Performances like "Through a Long and Sleepless Night" from Something Nice and "The Gal from Joe's" from Love Shout, to cite but two examples, stand with the best of Jones's work.
Unfortunately, the 1960s turned out to be a difficult time for jazz musicians. The arrival of the Beatles in the United States unleashed the cultural floodgates. The Baby Boomer brigade marginalized jazz both culturally and commercially. Many jazz singers retired from music or moved overseas to find an audience. However, Jones had managed to build herself enough of a reputation that she was able to continue to work. Recording opportunities grew scarce, and, aside from a 1965 record for Roulette, Jones remained off vinyl for nearly a decade.
In 1968, Etta Jones found herself booked into a Washington, DC nightclub on the same bill as the great tenor saxophonist Houston Person. The two struck up an immediate friendship that developed into one of the most enduring musical partnerships in the history of jazz. Person served as Jones's musical director, record producer and manager. They toured the world together always with equal billing. It is a testament to the uniqueness of their partnership that most of the biographical sources and album guides including The All Music Guide to Jazz and The Virgin Encyclopedia of Jazz incorrectly refer to Person as Jones's husband. He was not her husband, but he was her musical alter ego, her most sure-footed collaborator and her truest friend.
However, Person's debut as Jones's record producer was less than auspicious. Etta Jones '75 was an ill- advised effort at a more contemporary sound. Fortunately, Person recovered his footing the following year when he produced Jones to You, the first of Etta's dozen records for Joe Fields's Muse label.
Jones to You and its progeny, My Mother's Eyes (1977), If You Could See Me Now (1978) and Save Your Love for Me (1980) made Etta Jones one of the first singers to return to recording straight-ahead jazz on a regular basis. Her album sales were now far less than they had been during her Prestige days, but she always managed to move enough copies of one record to justify making another.