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One of the surefire signs of a musical genre’s health is often its gender equity in performers – and audience of course.

The broader the perspectives used, and the more varied the vocal deliveries, the less likely a style will face creative stagnation.

Rock ‘n’ roll had seemed to be the exception that proved this rule for a time having just a handful of female artists in its first few years, but while it’d still take until the late 1950’s, if not early 1960’s with the rise of the “girl group” phenomenon for things to somewhat balance out, at least the tide was beginning to turn… slowly maybe, but surely.

Driving this push for equality of late has been teenagers, Little Esther most famously, then Sylvia Vanderpool and now Edna McGriff, all of them in their mid-teens, but all possessing the natural skill to make up for a lack of worldly experience.


A Brand New Start
Okay, I know what you’re thinking… Esther was a legitimate star, someone who notched three Number One hits in the span of a few months, and while Sylvia Vanderpool hadn’t even scored one, we all know she went on to be one of the most multi-talented artists, male OR female, in rock history.

But Edna McGriff?

If her name is familiar it’s for one national hit she’ll get in a few months time, but beyond that her career is mostly unknown by all but the most fervent collector of this era, so is she really deserving of being placed on the same plane as those two?

No, she isn’t, at least not based on the depth or impact of her full catalog, though she was a talented singer and songwriter, but rather what’s important is the age… the fact that rock ‘n’ roll had been appealing to the younger generation now since its birth in 1947 – when McGriff was about to turn 12 – and so she, like those others, had more or less grown up with this music as a part of their everyday life.

Never underestimate that fact. For older artists, even those just in their mid-to-late 20’s at this point, rock was something they had to learn and adapt to, not always comfortably, but for those who were still in their teens it came naturally.

Of course that’s not to say that record companies were always quite as amenable to the style as their artists were and after a record deal with Apollo that McGriff signed in the spring fell through she landed at Jubilee whose track record in the arranging department for their rock acts frequently leaves something to be desired.

Usually that meant sticking to a very stark musical backing for The Orioles, but at least on McGriff’s debut, Come Back, they give her the courtesy of a full band… however it appears to be a band who’d just come off stage at a jazz club with scantily dressed showgirls.

That kind of thing would hardly seem to be a benefit to a teenager making her first appearance on record as a prospective rock act but to McGriff’s credit she doesn’t let them phase her in the least.


Two Sides To Every Story
With a throbbing saxophone that gets upended by a full brass section imported from another universe, the sounds they produce are pulling in opposite directions even though they don’t step on each other in the arrangement itself.

McGriff wisely ignores them and dives in with a rich, almost sultry, voice that sounds much older than her years. From the very start she’s got a firm handle on the rhythm, which isn’t surprising considering she wrote this herself like most of her early material, and she’s placed this on a melodic roller coaster that allows her to sound effortless as she navigates its ups and downs.

The story is simple enough… she’s admitting she screwed up in a relationship, apologizing and asking the guy to Come Back. Note that unlike a lot of guys in songs who duck responsibility when the situation is reversed, she’s owning up to her mistakes.

Her voice is totally in control throughout this, showing such confidence it’s disarming. Most impressive is how she uses a series of deceleration techniques to virtually create a hook where there isn’t one, just relying on that hesitation and the delayed gratification it produces to pull you in. This is as confident a performance as you’ll find, something impressive for a five year vet, let alone someone who was still attending high school.

Unfortunately we can’t say the same about the veteran musicians enlisted to back her, led by jazz trombonist Bennie Green who is playing in a style he doesn’t understand and thus is way over his head here.

The basic musical structure is fine, they don’t get in her way as she sings, but their concept of rousing your excitement and our ideas on the subject are miles apart… millions of miles in fact.

You can’t do what needs to be done with the instruments they’re using, at least no one in rock would figure out how to use the brass section, as opposed to reeds, to do so effectively until the 1960’s and even then it was a tricky business and you couldn’t ever feel comfortable when using those horns to create a strong driving rhythm unless your name was James Brown.

That’s Green’s first mistake, he sounds TOO comfortable with his own misguided vision on this and as a result he doesn’t hesitate to walk all over what should’ve been an easy, no frills arrangement for what ideally would’ve been a small combo of just drums, piano and sax. Instead we get a whole orchestra crammed in the studio trying too hard to earn their 42 dollars apiece.

The early signs of the tenor taking the lead quickly vanishes and from then on the extraneous horns intrude on the entire production. From that totally inappropriate strip-tease attitude they play with at the start to their more discreet supper club fills their main contribution is creating a schizophrenic feel to the record that McGriff doesn’t deserve.

For the most part though after those early “in your face” missteps you can ignore them because she’s so captivating and the drummer is thankfully keeping a steady beat, but there’s still a few too many moments where they make their presence known and it can’t help but drag your enthusiasm for the record down a little.

I Didn’t Mean To Hurt You
Record labels who focused on rock had little choice when the genre started to hire moonlighting jazz musicians to back their singers and while it wasn’t necessarily a seamless transition, their experience in the studio, their versatility and their comfort in creating head arrangements worked to rock’s early advantage, giving the music the veneer of professionalism that enticed labels and some audience members into giving it a chance.

But rather quickly the top artists recruited their own bands and whipped them into shape, dropping any hint of classier aspirations and focusing on what moved the crowd. Meanwhile the best labels hired top notch producers who may have been schooled in jazz but were absolutely ruthless in stripping the music down to its barest essentials to give rock its own identity.

But not all companies ascribed to that and it’s no wonder Jubilee was lagging behind commercially as long as they viewed the pop and jazz worlds as being superior to the rock world they were competing in.

The signing Edna McGriff was very promising for the company’s prospects going forward and despite her youth she should’ve been the one to seize control of the direction of the label, even more than The Orioles, as she wrote her own songs and could therefore dictate what the band should sound like. But Come Back is hampered by someone out of his league, not due to age as you might expect (Green was in his late 20’s) but because he was from another world musically.

Yet every time you listen to this, as much as the band annoys you, McGriff captivates you and since it’s her whose name and voice are on the record and who wrote it to begin with, it’s her we’ll choose to celebrate and not penalize her too much for inviting these unwelcome guests to her coming out party.

Next time though if they show up expecting to be let in though, slam the door in their faces.


(Visit the Artist page of Edna McGriff for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)