Bob Perkins Remembers The Time He Met Singer Etta Jones

Sep 17, 2015

Witnessing certain events, and meeting certain people earlier in life, can sometimes become meaningful as time goes by—especially when the witness goes on to become a writer, historian, or otherwise chronicler of life’s personalities and events.

But who’s to know early on what they will eventually become? How much information on how many people and subjects should be stored away for possible future use?

I entered into communications many years ago and, fortunately, my rewind button has been of great assistance in helping me make a living. In this column, I decided to write about singer Etta Jones. My recall took me back to the mid 1950s, when I first saw and heard her perform at a little club in Philly. She had not become “the” Etta Jones yet, and I certainly had no idea that six decades later, she would not be alive and I’d be writing a column about her.

I liked what I’d heard from Ms. Jones that night at the little club in Philly. I don’t remember hearing much about and from her, until her 1960 hit, “Don’t Go To Strangers.” When the single became an LP, it went gold.

I didn’t hear much about Etta between that first time, and “Strangers,” because she hadn’t been doing much recording. She was working to make ends meet, as an elevator operator, seamstress, and stuffing LPs into jackets for a major record company.

With “Don’t Go To Strangers,” Etta Jones became a known entity in the entertainment world. But that recognition came after a long apprenticeship, which began with her entering an amateur contest in 1943 at the age 15. Even though she did not take first prize, she caught the ear of bandleader Buddy Johnson and sang with his band for a year. She later recorded a few sides with the famed pianist and jazz authority Leonard Feather, then went on to sing in the bands of J.C. Heard and Earl “Fatha” Hines. The stint with Hines lasted three years.

But Etta’s successful single and follow-up LP did not bring her the future success expected. She made a number of other albums for Prestige and other labels, but nothing major happened, even though she had great looks, a fine voice, and knew how to put over a song as well as any of her female vocal contemporaries.

A change for the better came when she met saxophonist and bandleader Houston Person, who had a keen understanding of the recording industry, and not only was producing his own recording sessions for the Muse label, but those of other artists, too. He and Etta decided to join forces, travel together and work as a team, and they did so successfully for better than 30 years.

This took Etta out of the race for wider recognition she hadn’t been able to capture. Person was an excellent tenor saxophonist and bandleader, knew the music business, and was always working. He and Etta traveled together domestically and abroad, and were always in high demand. Each worked independently on occasion, but most of the time they appeared together, which gave rise to the belief among jazz writers and fans that they were married.

In 1977, I finally got to meet the lady I’d seen and heard when I introduced Etta and Houston at another club in Philly, at which I was the emcee. I continued to follow Etta’s career over the years, and whenever possible would attend her and Houston’s appearances.

In 2001, I learned she was seriously ill and may not have long to live. I was present at one of her last concerts in Atlantic City in July of that year. She had to be helped onstage and sang while seated. But standing or seated, it was still Etta Jones. I saw her after the show, and knew it would probably be the last time—and it was. Etta passed away a couple of months later, just shy of her 73rd birthday.

Etta Jones, a very fine singer of song who for whatever reasons didn’t get all the accolades her talent earned. I guess some folks just didn’t recognize her talent. She received three Grammy nominations and in 2008, her album Don’t Go To Strangers was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.          

Much like Heinz, the maker of condiments who boasts having 57 varieties, Etta had at least that many ways of interpreting a song. She once said, “I never sing a song the same way again. I can’t even sing along to my own records.”            

So even after six decades, every now and then the image and the memory of when and where I first saw and heard Etta Jones pops into my noggin.

This article is from the August 2015 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More information.