I never had the pleasure of seeing Etta James perform. Several times I attended events she was supposed to perform at, but each time she withdrew shortly before the performance. I can only remember her by her body of recordings as well as television appearances she made. I remember the memorable episode of the original PBS Soundstage program where she sang a duet with Dr. John on I’d Rather Go Blind.
The first albums of Etta James I purchased included the double-CD compilation of her Essential Chess Recordings and one of her albums on Island which included a stormy rendition of Standin’ On Shaky Ground, and the classic Otis Redding number “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember. What was striking about her was her husky, earthiness, yet the ability to caress a ballad so that her signature song was a song written in the forties, At Last. She could be a force of nature and yet caress a ballad. Few could handle the range of material she did with the same conviction and authority. There was the church rooted style of Something Got a Hold on Me or I’d Rather Go Blind and the romanticism of At Last, as well as her latter day recordings of standards.
While the recordings she listened to by Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, one of the most important influences on her singing was her dear friend, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson. Some, who were not aware may have called Watson, “the female Etta James” but if she was asked she would correct them and state she was the female John Watson. This might be evident if one mixed some of Watson’s slow recordings like Cuttin’ In or Embraceable You, with James’ ballads or her Billie Holiday Tribute, Mystery Lady. Her impact can be seen in the number of recordings of her songs by others, with At Last becoming a wedding standard.
Prior to her death, Universal released on its Hip-O-Select label, the four-CD Heart & Soul: A Retrospective, that in its four CDs surveys her recordings from her debut as The Wallflower doing Roll With Me Henry, for Modern Records to the previously unissued 2007 recording of Rodney Crowell’s Ashes By Now. The first disc opens with 9 recordings from Modern including Roll With Me Henry, and her jump blues Good Rocking Daddy. The bulk of this compilation derive from her stay at Chess starting from All I Could Do Is Cry, her duet with Harvey Fuqua of Willie Dixon’s Spoonful, the standards At Last and Sunday King of Love, duets with Sugar Pie DeSanto and her visits to Muscle Shoals which produced Tell Mama, I’d Rather Go Blind, and Otis Redding’s Security. Before she left Chess they experimented with other producers turning in renditions of St. Louis Blues, Tracy Nelson’s Down So Low, and Randy Newman’s Sail Away.
After her tenure at Chess she produced a moving version of Alice Cooper’s Only Women Bleed, for Warner Brothers (although I prefer the rare Ike and Tina Turner rendition) and was caught live with Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson for Fantasy represented here on Percy Mayfield’s Please Send Me Someone To Love. She joined Island and produced a stirring “Damn Your Eyes,” that today perhaps only a Bettye LaVette could do equal justice to. Not everything is top level. Her duet with B.B. King on Big Jay McNeely’s There Is Something on Your Mind, is a nice track but not as powerful as the original with Little Sonny Warner on the vocal or Bobby Marchand’s two-part reworking which is the source for the King-James interpretation here. Blues remained a core of her music whether on The Blues Is My Business, or the acoustic blues rendition of Elmore James’ The Sky Is Crying.
I purchased this box set. Here is Etta singing At Last.