The bold and confident vocal style of Etta James would not lead to her being described as a wallflower — but she first came to fame with a record named after one. ‘The Wallflower,’ much better known as ‘Dance With Me Henry,’ entered Billboard’s R&B chart a few weeks after Etta’s 17th birthday. Decades later, it found an improbable new audience on the soundtrack of Back To The Future.
James had a writing credit on the song along with Johnny Otis and Hank Ballard, the latter star listed because he wrote the hit that inspired it. The bawdy ‘Work With Me, Annie’ was a huge R&B hit for Ballard and his group the Midnighters, topping the charts for seven weeks in the spring. It led to several follow-ups and answer records, including one of their own, ‘Annie Had A Baby.’
Etta’s recording of the song that became known as ‘Dance With Me Henry’ featured the unbilled male “responses” of R&B singer-writer Richard Berry. Recorded for the Modern label, it was credited to Etta James and the Peaches, and made its chart debut on 19 February 1955.
The song appeared, in Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues section, on both the Best Sellers In Stores chart and Most Played By Jockeys; in June, the latter listing would change to Most Played R&B By Jockeys. Her single went on to spend four non-consecutive weeks at No. 1 in April and May.
Unfortunately for Etta, there was the inevitable pop cover of ‘The Wallflower’ to stop her crossing over, so to speak. Georgia Gibbs, the singer from Worcester, Massachusetts who was already on the pop chart with a version of ‘Tweedle Dee,’ stole in with ‘Dance With Me Henry (Wallflower),’ as her Mercury single was called, and topped the pop chart for three weeks. Nevertheless, the voice of the teenage Etta James was now being heard on the national stage.
‘The Wallflower’ is on the soundtrack of Back To The Future, which can be bought here.