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Etta James: Buyer's Guide

From teenage R&B prodigy to Matriarch Of The Blues, this deep soul diva’s output was passionate, wounded and raunchy.

BLAME IT ON Eric Clapton and the myriad hordes who followed in his bluesbreaking creamy footsteps, but the present-day perception of the blues is that it’s all about guitars, mostly brandished by men. But while many of the blues greats wielded the six-string razor (alongside those who blew the harp and those who pounded pianos), most of those Real Guys would tell you that the Real Deal was about the singing and the song, rather than the solo: the instrumental flourishes were the icing on the cake rather than the cake itself.

Among those rare non-playing, non-(or rarely) writing male blues singers, the champ was the late Bobby Bland; his closest female equivalent was Etta James (1938-2012), who wrote rarely but often successfully.

Born Jamesetta Hawkins in LA to a 14-year-old mother and abandoned by her father (who may have been the legendary poolshark Minnesota Fats, immortalised in the movie The Hustler), she followed an archetypal vocal path incorporating both church and street-corner harmonising.

Discovered and signed, like so many others, by Johnny Otis, the 14-year-old Etta was catapulted into the hard-scrabble world of commercial R&B courtesy of LA’s Modern label, scoring first crack out of the box with the grindingly

lascivious Roll With Me Henry (hastily retitled The Wallflower and covered by the anodyne Georgia Gibbs). In 1960, she moved house to Chess, where she stayed for the next 18 years, inspiring the likes of Janis Joplin and recording her most substantial body of work, including classics At Last, I’d Rather Go Blind, In The Basement and Tell Mama.

Triumphing over drug, alcohol and relationship traumas, she continued to record and perform, burning down the house until just before her death: always a done-it-all blueswoman, a had-it-all-done-to-me deep-soul queen and the roughest, toughest jazz diva of ’em all.


Essential

The perfect introduction

The Very Best Of Etta James: The Chess Singles (Chess)

From bluesy heartache to funky raunch: the startling range of Etta’s Chess era.

The title is arguable: Etta recorded wonderful things both before and after her Chess period. The four CDs of 2011’s Heart And Soul come close-but-no-cigar to transcending the aesthetic and legal headaches involved in assembling a definitive lifetime anthology spanning a recording career which stretched from 1955 until 2011, but this set collects more great Etta in one place than anything else you can find, including a bewildering assortment of other Chess-era repackagings in various shapes, sizes and price ranges.

Throughout the 1960s, this plump, pugnacious little fireplug was Chess Records’ most consistent and reliable hitmaker. You want raunchy, funky soul to challenge the best of Aretha Franklin’s Atlantic sides? Tell Mama, Something’s Got A Hold On Me, In The Basement. You want heartrending bluesy balladry? You can’t get much better than At Last (a 1942 Glenn Miller chestnut, of all things) and I’d Rather Go Blind. You want that version of Muddy’s I Just Want To Make Love To You, alongside a few other Southside classics like Spoonful and Baby What You Want Me To Do? Yep, present and correct. You want sophisto-pop classics exquisitely roughed-up? Try Stormy Weather and These Foolish Things.

Like Aretha, Etta could handle anything from pop-jazz standards to gutbucket blues, and all points in between, and the startling range of her Chess work, combined with the rock-solid personal identity she manifested in any style Chess’s producers dreamed up, was the hallmark of her greatness. Remember: At Last and I Just Wanna Make Love To You were two sides of the same single, and the same singer.

Superior

The releases that built her reputation

R&B Dynamite (Ace)

The cream of Etta’s early years.

1950s LA pop for blues people (or blues for pop people): a nifty selection of the Modern Records sides cut by Young Etta in her first few studio years. Blatantly derivative of whatever was successful at the time (hey, it kicks off with W.O.M.A.N.hi, Muddy, hi Bo!), it’s nonetheless big rocking fun all the way. R&B, jump and doo-wop grooves garnished with hilariously dirty sax solos: only two big hits (Roll With Me Henry and Good Rockin’ Daddy) but with compositions by the likes of Leiber & Stoller, Richard Berry and Berry Gordy, it blends high class and low life as well as any commercial R&B of its era.

The Dreamer (Verve Forecast)

Etta’s final LP does not go gently.

Etta’s poignant final recordings capture the lioness in winter. By now bedecked with all manner of honours – Grammys, a Hollywood Walk Of Fame and Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductions, plus much more – she was suffering from leukaemia, MRSA and Alzheimer’s, and obviously not long for this plane of existence. With her sons as the rhythm section, the covers range from Otis Redding, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and Bobby Bland all the way to Guns N' Roses. Like John Lee Hooker or Johnny Cash, Etta goes out ailing but not failing: less power, but a lifetime’s joy and pain enriching the songs.

Mystery Lady/ Time After Time (Floating World)

Etta sings Billie, and explores the Great American Songbook.

Mislabelled, and with the tracks listed in the wrong order, this poorly packaged set nevertheless thrills. Mystery Lady (1993) and Time After Time (1994) respectively feature Etta taking on the less obvious parts of the Billie Holiday repertoire and the Great American Songbook, backed by a group led by pianist Cedar Walton, and featuring saxophonist Eddie Harris. Sometimes there’s more to the blues than just the blues – and a great blues singer can take the blues anywhere she cares to go.

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Good

Worth a look

Come A Little Closer (Chess)

At her lowest ebb, she still shines.

Produced by rock guy Gabriel Mekler (better known for Steppenwolf and Janis Joplin), this 1974 curio hails from when Etta was in the deepest throes of heroin addiction, and fails to hang together as an album, but you still got to love it. Highlights include the Isaac Hayes-style wah-wah and Cinerama-strings epic Out On The Streets Again, a monumental choral St Louis Blues, and a sizzling simmer on Randy Newman’s Let’s Burn Down The Cornfield with Lowell George, not to mention the ominous, wordless but expressive Feelin’ Uneasy.

The Right Time (Elektra)

Etta and Jerry Wexler get funky.

This 1992 team-up with Atlantic maestro Jerry Wexler fractionally out-vibes their 1977 collaboration, Deep In The Night. Bookended by I Sing the Blues and Down Home Blues, with Steve Cropper and Willie Weeks on the session team, The Right Time adds a Steve Winwood duet and a repertoire including Al Green’s Love And Happiness and George Jackson’s Wet Match (splendidly dismissing an inadequate lover), plus goodies by Hayes & Porter and Allen Toussaint, and her own Let It Rock. The result delivers kick-off-your- shoes Etta with the funk knob cranked to 11.

Avoid

Like the plague

Stickin' To My Guns (Island)

Damp squib fails to ignite.

There are no bad Etta James albums, only mildly disappointing ones where something doesn’t quite click. Produced by Muscle Shoals vet Barry Beckett in the same aesthetic as Etta’s post-Chess sets with Jerry Wexler, it makes all the right moves – including bringing in players like drummer Roger Hawkins and guitarists Reggie Young and Teenie Hodges as well as songs by Hayes & Porter, Otis Redding and Tony Joe White – but ignites only a smoulder rather than a full-on blaze.


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