At the age of sixteen, R&B vocalist Edna McGriff scored a hit with only her second single, 1952’s “Heavenly Father.” But despite more solid outings on a half-dozen labels, she never again found true commercial success. Bear Family’s twenty-nine track anthology picks up the story in 1954 and winds through a multi-year tenure on Bell with backings from the Jimmy Carroll Orchestra, and one-offs for Brunswick, Felsted and Savoy. She and her producers ranged widely for material, covering many hits-of-the-day, including R&B, pop (The Chordette’s “Born to Be With You” and Sal Mineo’s “Start Movin’ in My Direction”), rockabilly (Lee Hazlewood’s “The Fool”), spirituals (“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”), folk revival favorites (“Freight Train”) and a trio of tunes from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song.
Though she was a sophisticated balladeer, her R&B numbers generate the most heat and vocal distinction. She hadn’t the bluesy grit of either Ruth Brown or Lavern Baker, but her energy really moves the former’s “Mambo Baby” and the latter’s “I Can’t Love You Enough.” At times she’s more kittenish, as on covers of “Sh-Boom” and “Dance with Me, Henry,” though, to be fair, even Etta James waited until 1958 to really hot-up the latter tune. McGriff could rock a bit, as she does on the clever multi-voiced, guitar-driven “Oh Joe!” She was a precise vocalist, and her control worked well on ballads, where the tremolo in her held notes added emotion. On rock ‘n’ roll tunes, such as the Bobettes’ “Mr. Lee,” her excellent diction feels at odds the song’s youthful exuberance.
McGriff’s commercial fortunes were hampered by Bell’s practice of splitting singles between two artists and diffusing DJ attention. At the same time, the focus on covering hot singles kept her from forming a distinct profile. Still, her sophisticated style and wide-ranging material should have garnered more action. Bear Family’s digipack includes an attached 43-page booklet that’s stuffed with photos, label and picture sleeve reproductions, discographical data and liner notes by Bill Dahl. Dahl spends several pages on McGriff’s earlier Jubliee releases (including duets with the Orioles’ Sonny Til) and several paragraphs on her post-Bell sides, making one wish Bear Family had expanded this into a “Complete Edna McGriff” package. For now, you’ll have to check out the grey market Heavenly Father to get more of the story. All tracks here are mono except 27-29, which are stereo. [©2012 Hyperbolium]