Sunday, January 2, 2011

Etta James

Etta JamesEtta James recorded for Modern Records in the late 50s, starting with Roll With Me Henry (aka The Wallflower) which was an answer record to Hank Ballard’s raunchy Work With Me Annie. But this collection, called The Essential Etta James, covers her years with Chess, starting in 1960. Musically it’s wonderful, historically less so, but still 22 of her 28 top 100 singles are here.

Now Etta, she had style. Just picture the 60s world of female R&B, with Dionne Warwick doing near MOR on one end, and Aretha with her gospel-inflected soul at the other. Now keep moving, past Aretha, and there is Etta, screaming for all she’s worth. And she got away with all that screaming, because, as I say, she had style.

And for all those 28 hits, and her induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, the Grammy Hall Of Fame and the Blues Hall Of Fame (you didn’t know there was such a thing, did you) how many people, including boomers, could name one of her songs.

Etta James:

All I Could Do Was Cry – The subject is familiar. We’ve heard this before, and we’ll hear it again. But Etta’s delivery is so… adult, so real, that the experience is unique. It would take Aretha another seven years to figure this out. Her debut top 100 single, from the summer of 1960.
My Dearest Darling – Nice pizzicato on this. The first song proved that she could do heartbreak, and this proves that she can do hopeful – with a vengeance. In other words, but for the fact that she sings the heck out of it, this would be just another love song. From the winter of 1960 / 1961.
If I Can’t Have You – Romantic obsessiveness. This is a duet with Harvey Fuqua, slightly reminiscent of Ike & Tina on I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine. Not the Yvonne Elliman song. From the autumn of 1960.
A Sunday Kind Of Love – Slowed down compared to how we usually hear this one. Very barroom, with beautiful solo strings. Originally recorded by The Harptones, and covered by everyone and his brother.
Anything To Say You’re Mine – A song of longing and denial, with a great cello arrangement.
At Last – Comes on all symphonic and stays there. Said to be her signature tune and I’ll have take their word for it, whoever they are. It did not even make the top 40, from the winter of 1961.
Seven Day Fool – She gets down and gritty here, appropriately. It’s all about the dysfunctional nature of love. From the winter of 1961 / 1962, and the B side of It’s Too Soon To Know, which isn’t on this collection.
Trust In Me – Etta goes lounge. From the spring of 1961.
Only Time Will Tell
Don’t Pick Me For Your Fool – Janis Joplin would have sold her soul to sound like this. She spent her entire career trying. Amazing stuff.
The Same Rope
Fool That I Am – Tinkling barroom piano, movie-nightclub strings, Etta does a jazz ballad with as much panache as she does anything else. From the summer of 1961.
One For My Baby – Jazz chestnut.
Waiting For Charlie (To Come Home)
Something’s Got A Hold On Me – Almost rock and roll. Covered by The Merseybeats. From the spring of 1962.
Next Door To The Blues – Matters of the heart represented as physical places, think Heartbreak Hotel, Lonesome Town, etc.
These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You) – A very soulful rendition of a pop standard.
Stop The Wedding – Another old story. Do clergymen really do this, ask people if they have objections? Do people really voice objections? Gladys Knight did also, in It Should Have Been Me. Ok. From the fall of 1962.
Prisoner Of Love – Pretty straight compared to, say, James Brown doing this.
Pushover – Another song close to the rock and roll of its day. From the summer of 1963, while The Beatles were taking over England.
Would It Make Any Difference To You – From the winter of 1963.
Pay Back – From the summer of 1963.
Two Sides To Every Story – Some level headed thinking, to a great R&B rhythm and girl group attitude. From the winter of 1963.
In The Basement, Part One – It’s a nice place, a dancing place, not a drug hangout. Ok? From the summer of 1966.
Baby What You Want Me To Do – The Jimmy Reed blues standard, done to the teeth by The Yardbirds etc. Etta slows it down a bit. From the winter of 1964, as the British invasion was getting firmly off the ground.
Loving You More Every Day – “I want you to marry me,” she screams at the top of her lungs – wow. This is some infatuation going on. From the spring of 1964.
Do I Make Myself Clear – Ultimatum time, in the tradition of the best R&B. From the winter of 1965 / 66.
I Prefer You – I suppose one takes what one can get.
It Must Be Your Love – “They just don’t know,” she sings, in response to various and sundry detractors, “what I found in you.” Spare us the details. An obsession set to music.
542-3089 (Call My Name) –Takes its place beside Beechwood 4-5768 by The Marvelettes and 634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.) by Wilson Picket, among the phone number songs. That has to mean something…
I’d Rather Go Blind – Here is where everything stops. It’s not At Last really, it’s this one that everyone thinks of when Etta’s name comes up, if they think of anything. The Muscle Shoals rhythm section is behind this, and Etta’s vocal is indescribable, in this tale of hopelessness. This was the B side of Tell Mama; it never made the pop charts. Note: Dave Marsh in The Heart Of Rock And Soul claims that the alcolhol of which she sings in this song is a stand-in for the junk to which she was addicted, but I don’t know what song he was hearing, there is nothing in this song about substance abuse, unless he thinks that the word “blind” means “drunk,” which is a farfetched assumption, because it makes no sense.
Tell Mama – This was her highest placing chart single, and even then it only made number 23. Good gritty late 60s R&B, from the winter of 1967 / 1968 to be precise.
Do Right Woman, Do Right Man – Ok, she doesn’t make you forget Aretha, but she does hold her own. Joe Cocker also had a crack at this.
Security – She’s not talking finacial; it’s an odd subject for a pop song but a heck of a lot more realistic than undying love. From the spring of 1968.
Almost Persuaded – Country song done with country flavour. Maybe she was trying to prove that she could sing anything. Maybe she could. A hit for David Houston. From winter of 1969.
You Got It – We all know what she means. Super funky.
Miss Pitiful – Takes on Otis Redding on this. Otis sounded pitiful; Etta sounds anything but.
Losers Weepers, Part One – She slows it down here and tells how her best friend dumped her guy because he was “too old.” Well… So Etta grabbed the “old” dude and good for her. Musically this is close to I’d Rather Go Blind. From the fall of 1970.
W.O.M.A.N. – Slinky, sexy, bluesy…
I Never Meant To Love Him – These things just happen I guess. The ultimate slow dance – I cheated, right, but you know…
Steal Away – From her Daddy, not her man. Very soulful.
Feeling Uneasy – Now this is an odd one. I think it could stand beside The Plastic Ono Band’s Cold Turkey, because I think that’s what this is about. There are no lyrics, but there is something going on that’s highly unsettling…

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