Etta James — “Watch Dog”: Brace for the Obscure (60s rock)! — January 11, 2022

316) Etta James — “Watch Dog”

Big Mama Thornton and Elvis, please move aside. Etta James’s “Watch Dog” is R&B’s and rock ‘n’ roll’s true killer canine. The song — written by Don Covay — is “feverish” and “snarls with rock ‘n’ roll energy” (Charles Hughes, Dave Writz used it to epitomize James in his essay accompanying her to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:

If rock & roll is rooted in teenage passion, teenage rebellion, teenage restlessness, teenage sexuality — then Etta James is a rock & roller to the bone. Starting out as a teenage phenomenon in the Fifties, she sang with a raw, unharnessed energy that matched her male coun­terparts. . . . Etta’s erotic audacity echoed the raunch of sisters like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, but in any era she would be considered a front-line femi­nist, a womanchild strong enough to dramatize the out­rage of her gender, to break old chains and signify, “I don’t want a watchdog . . . I want a man.”

“I’ve never seen a man sneaking and a-hiding when he should be out working and providing.” Ouch!

Who was Etta James? This is not the place for an extensive biography, but let me quote Mark Deming, who writes in All Music Guide that:

Jerry Wexler once called [Etta] “the greatest of all modern blues singers,” . . . [But] despite possessing one of the most powerful voices in music, James only belatedly gained the attention of the mainstream audience, appearing rarely on the pop charts despite scoring 30 R&B hits, and she lived a rough-and-tumble life that could have inspired a dozen soap operas, battling drug addiction and bad relationships while outrunning a variety of health and legal problems. . . . James’ career went into a slump in the mid-’60s, but in 1967 she . . . bounced back onto the R&B charts with the tunes “Tell Mama” and “I’d Rather Go Blind.”

Those songs appeared on her Tell Mama album (which reached #82 in ’68, with “Tell Mama” the A-side hitting #23 (#10 R&B) in November of ’67). The album also included “Watch Dog.” Bill Dahl says, also in AMG:

Leonard Chess [had] dispatched Etta James to Muscle Shoals in 1967, and the move paid off with one of her best and most soul-searing . . . albums. . . . The skin-tight session aces at Fame Studios really did themselves proud . . . .

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