Anyone generally familiar with black pop is aware of all the leading female voices holding court: Bessie Smith is “Empress of the Blues,” Ella Fitzgerald is “The First Lady of Song,” Billie Holiday is “Lady Day,” Sarah Vaughan is “The Divine One,” Dinah Washington is “Queen of the Blues,” Tina Turner is the “Queen of Rock,” and “Aretha Franklin is the “Queen of Soul.” The most recent contemporary addition is Mary J. Blige, understood as the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.” More queens and princesses are sure to come but strangely absent is Etta James (1938-2012). While she released a 2000 album called Matriarch of the Blues this title is both true and unsatisfying.
Though her signature songs, “At Last,” “A Sunday Kind of Love,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “I’d Rather Go Blind,” and “ Tell Mama” have secured her place as an icon and influence in popular music they only tell part of her story. These tunes were recorded from 1961-68, but James recorded a lot of material from 1954-2011. More to the point she Etta-ized everything she touched bringing an unmistakable intensity to her repertoire. The story of 20th century American popular music is typically divided into pre-war and post-war phases. In the pre-war period classic blues, theatrical/vaudeville style pop, swing and big-band, and bebop defined the pop landscape. After the war jazz-influenced pop crooners and soloists dominated for about a decade longer before more regional, independently produced and distributed styles—notably various forms of R&B and “hillbilly” music—began to infiltrate the market and threaten the long held dominance of major record labels. Eventually these musical strains overlapped and birthed rock ‘n’ roll. Despite the rhetorical feud between pre-rock and post-rock pop many performers traversed both eras in their musical tastes and James exemplifies this better than anyone.
American popular music is riddled with jazz singers attempting to stay relevant by haplessly applying jazz technique to rock and R&B tunes, and the inverse—rock singers trying to duplicate the swinging aura of their predecessors. These cross-genre deviations are usually questionable on all fronts but no one has ever really questioned James’s ability to cover this ground. Whereas Fitzgerald singing “Alright, OK You Win” (on 1968’s Sunshine of Your Love) with a funk backbeat is awkward, and Aretha Franklin singing with strings and cooing choirs on some of her ‘60s Columbia Records albums is dissonant, James singing “These Foolish Things” worked in 1962, and again when she reprised it in 2001. She is one of the few singers who was not only comfortable, but successful singing in the blues, rock, R&B, soul, crooner pop and jazz idioms without really breaking a sweat. Like some of our more admirable eclectics—Ray Charles, Charlie Rich, and Nina Simone among them, she always sounds comfortable because she is a kind of self-contained genre. She sings in her own language—she has a muscular alto, a built in soul cry and an affinity for an abrupt but sculpted wail, similar to Bobby “Blue” Bland’s soulful squall that punctuates many of her recordings. For proof listen to her spit out the lyric “I don’t want you to be no slave…” in “I Just Want To Make Love” or extend the phrase “Tears of Joy—oyyyy” on 1956’s “Tears of Joy.” She is also a relaxed singer with a great sense of humor and an accessible salt-of-the-earth persona (Her stunningly candid autobiography Rage to Survive, co-written with David Ritz, is a must- read) that is as integral to her sound as her timbre. She has released more live recordings than most peers for good reason—she is a skilled improviser who knows how to stretch a song’s boundaries and when to build off a crowd’s energy and deepen the impact of songs in a way that’s true to her material (check out Etta Rocks the House, Live in San Francisco, Blues in the Night, The Late Show, and Burnin’ Down the House for examples).
James’s 57 year recording career can be roughly divided into a mid-50s rock ‘n’ roll pioneer phase, the grand pop experiment at Chess Records where she recorded R&B, pop, soul, proto-funk, rock and country songs, her R&B late 70s-mid-80s “reassertion” recordings for Warner Bros. and Fantasy, her late ‘80s blues rock streak which extended to her final recordings, complemented in the ‘90s and ‘00s by serious dives into jazz singing. Her vast discography is not merely long—it’s genuinely impressive in scope. She was an eyewitness (and ear-witness) to profound changes in popular music. Her commercial emergence came when jazz-influenced pop started to lose stem commercially and rock ‘n’ roll was emerging, and her passing in 2011 when modern rock and hip-hop were influx makes for a uniquely bookended career [...]
The Queen of Chess Records
From 1960-75 James recorded for Chess Records and its subsidiaries (Argo and Cadet) including 13 LPs and 2 compilations. During her first three years she mixed new R&B tunes with standard material. On 1964’s Queen of Soul she nods toward changes in R&B via her version of Irma Thomas’s “Wish Someone Would Care.” She went one step further toward modern R&B on 1968’s Tell Mama recorded at Muscle Shoals. The ‘70s is more eclectic as she tackles everything from funk to Randy Newman’s commentaries. Like Billie Holiday at Columbia/Okeh, Sinatra at Capitol, and Aretha at Atlantic, this is her signature period where her public musical persona really takes shape.
Though various compilations are available and many of her LPs have been reissued 2000’s The Chess Box is the best overview of her career. In three discs its illustrates the enduring strength and durability of her vocal approach, her comfort with virtually any kind of song, her adaptability to changing production styles, and makes the case for her as the definitive modernizer of the blues inpostwar popular music. Whereas many black R&B singers played down the blues, and consciously sought out songs and production settings that crossed them over to white audiences James was too rough and blues-oriented to pull this off. None of the traditional “pop” sweeteners—strings, background vocals, plodding rhythms (i.e. 1962’s ripe “Be Honest with Me”)—detract from her blue instrument. As an interpreter she is a razor-sharp emotional editor who cuts through niceties, sweeteners, and other distractions and gets through to the heart of the lyric and the shape of the melody. This lack of artifice sometimes leads critics to dismiss her as unsubtle, but “At Last” balances grit with grace definitively. The way she sings it indicates that she understands the rewards of the love that has finally arrived, yet the struggle to get there also informs her relief—hence her cathartic belts and extended vowels. For comparison listen to Nat “King” Cole’s lovely but subdued rendition on 1957’s Love is the Thing and you hear the radical influence gospel had on the way pop singers of James’s generation approached songs. For the new generation emotion was something to unmask and declare openly. Regardless of the song she is usually on solid musical footing; she hits the correct notes and knows how to use her arsenal of devices to serve her material rarely “oversouling” and generally avoiding excessive note-bending.
Disc One (1960-62) introduces her core style and exciting signature hits like “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.” James is really a bridge between early R&B vocalists like LaVern Baker and Ruth Brown and the emerging soul style of Franklin, Gladys Knight, and Betty LaVette. The triplets and shuffling doo-wop rhythms are very 1950s but they are distinguished by an emotional immediacy and vocal grit that points toward soul music. There are also great touches like her great chemistry with male singers, such as her soulful duet with Harvey Fuqua (“If I Can’t Have You”), her versatile way with tunes as delicate as “One More for my Baby” and “These Foolish Things” and as intense as Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love” and “Spoonful,” and her emotionally assured approach to torch songs. Whether it’s an up-tempo like her first big Chess hit “All I Could Do Is Cry” or a more vintage tune like Russ Columbo’s “Prisoner of Love” she conveys vulnerability as tenderly as Holiday, Sinatra and Patsy Cline. As she moves toward more “soul” on CD Two (1962-69) the ‘50s touches give way to more contemporary rhythms. Her live 1963 performance of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do” attests that she is totally in her element performing in the bluesiest, grittiest reaches of R&B including her saxophone imitation. Yet she still has a love for emotive classics from a previous era such as her soulful, string drenched version of “Lover Man” (which she revisited live on 1986’s Blues in the Night, with saxophonist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, and on her 1994 Holiday set).
1968’s Tell Mama (eight cuts are featured on the box set but the whole album is worthwhile) is her most radical shift thanks to the throbbing horn-spiked arrangements and raw, unguarded performances. Just as the skilled musicians of the Muscle Shoals studio gave a bunch of Southern soul records their bottom in the ‘60s James benefited from the change of scenery: “I’d Rather Go Blind,” Otis Redding’s “Security,” Clarence Carter’s “Tell Mama” (given a kind of swinging rhythmic foundation similar to Franklin’s “Respect”), Dan Penn’s “Do Right Woman-Do Right Man” (which had been waxed recently by Franklin), and a soul drenched version of the country tune “Almost Persuaded” represent the second peak from the brilliant signatures she essayed at the beginning of her Chess tenure. By ’67 she was a thoroughly modern vocalist who had mastered R&B and was now singing at the heart of the funkier “soul” music movement. Not only had James thrived in a commercial market dominated by girl groups and pop soloists like Connie Francis and Brenda Lee, she was also holding her own with Franklin, Knight, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, and other popular new female singers of the era.
At the end of Disc Two and throughout Disc Three (1969-74) James stretches into new territory such as a sultry funkdafied rendition of “Light My Fire.” She tackles material by soul icons like Redding (“Miss Pitiful”) and Wilson Pickett (“I Found a Love”), but also expands into material by rock-oriented writers. In the early ‘70s James, who had been a precocious “wild child,” struggled with drug addiction and upon returning from rehab Chess sought to modernize her further with singer-songwriter material such as Randy Newman tunes like “God’s Song” and “Sail Away,” along with funk and pop tunes like Tom Jans’s wonderful “Lovin’ Arms.” The set features interesting unreleased experiments like the wordless funk tune “Slow and Easy” and a version of “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin.’” While the recordings highlighted on Disc Three are less consistent than the first two they indicate an incomplete but interesting effort to merge soul with rock [...]
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