Among classic women singers of jazz, Etta Jones came late to critical and popular acclaim. Although she made her professional debut at 16 with the Buddy Johnson Big Band, she didn’t get her big break until 1960 with her breakthrough hit on the Prestige label, "Don’t Go To Strangers." Her time with the label was fleeting, and in the annals of classic women jazz singers Jones barely gets a second mention alongside Ella, Billie, Sarah, Carmen, or even singers coming into their own at that time like Nina Simone, Annie Ross, Anita O’Day, and Julie London.
However, the collection The Best of Etta Jones: The Prestige Singles
, released about six months after Jones’ death October 2001, aims to rectify that perception. As collections go, this one is smartly put together; during the time of Jones’ greatest commercial success in the early 1960’s at Prestige the emphasis was not on full-length albums but on singles. As Esmond Edwards points out in his lovingly reflective liner notes, "Don’t Go To Strangers" may very well still be the best-selling single ever released by the largely instrumental Prestige label. "Strangers" went to #5 on the R&B chart and peaked at #36 on the pop chart that year.
As a vocalist, Jones conjures up memories of the young Billie Holiday. Her voice had that same new-penny shine that distinguished Holiday. Jones also had a healthy respect for a lyric; her taste in song choices leaned towards mid-to-slower tempo song-stories by Harold Arlen, the Gershwin Brothers, Cole Porter, and Sammy Cahn. Of those composers, Cahn’s "All The Way" and the Gershwins’ "Love Walked In" are represented in this collection, and wonderful examples of Jones’ singing style.
All of the selections on The Prestige Years
hail from Jones’ salad days with the label, 1960-1962. Pop songs figure prominently in the track listing: a beautiful cover of Meredith Wilson’s "Till There Was You", later popularized by the Beatles, and a bright take on the Righteous Brothers’ "Unchained Melody" that Jones infuses with unyielding hope for unrequited love. Some surprises pop up throughout, like a bossa nova take on the Ellington-Mills standard "The Gal From Joe’s." Overall, the album pulls off the double feat of being a loving tribute to a talented singer and a solid chronicle of her most creative period.