The lengthy and influential career of the great Etta James has had a powerful impact on blues, soul, and R&B music from the 1960s to the current day. The recipient of four Grammy™ Awards and 17 W.C. Handy/Blues Music Awards, James enjoyed her commercial peak with Chess Records during the early 1960s, but has continued to make vital and interesting music right through her most recent album, 2006's All The Way. Suffering from health problems, including a diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease, at the end of a stellar career that has spanned six decades, we thought that we'd look back at Etta James' greatest hits.
A bona fide tearjerker, this bluesy torchsong perfectly married R&B emotion with pop convention to become James' first crossover hit, charting at #33 on the Billboard magazine pop chart while rising to #2 on the R&B chart. Backed by a full orchestra – an idea hatched by Chess Records' Leonard Chess to enhance James' pop appeal – James' heartbreakingly beautiful vocals are enhanced by the lush orchestration.
Considered by many, James included, to be the singer's signature performance, "At Last" was another of Leonard Chess's orchestral master strokes, the beautiful ballad providing a strong showcase for James' emotional vocals. Reminiscent of mid-1950s vocal groups like the Platters, "At Last" is a timeless performance that, surprisingly enough, didn't even reach the top 40 of the pop charts while rising to #2 on the R&B charts. Still, quality wins out and almost 50 years later, "At Last" remains a favorite of oldies radio and movie soundtracks.
The Reverend's personal fave Etta James song, "I'd Rather Go Blind" is as close as anybody can ever come to capturing the sound of heartbreak on record. James' bittersweet, nuanced vocals are understated yet powerful, and although the song failed to chart, it remains a classic nonetheless. Recorded at the Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama with Rick Hall providing a masterfully subtle production and the Swampers session gang playing to James' strengths, this is one of the truly underrated performances in the James canon.
A fine example of James' later work, this cover of Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long" is a sort of Frankenstein creation. Recorded in Nashville and Los Angeles and involving a couple dozen musicians, what really shines through all the overdubs is James' transcendent vocals. Much as she did with Redding's "Security," James pulls out all the stops to deliver a classic performance. Her voice is a little more worn than on her 1960s-era work, and a bit world-weary, but the power and the emotion rise like cream to the surface above an otherwise pedestrian arrangement.
A teenaged "Peaches" enjoyed her second chart hit in 1955, hitting #6 with this Richard Berry-penned rave-up that mixed rock 'n' roll with rollicking R&B. Backed by the Maxwell Davis Orchestra, the song's hornplay provides the perfect framework for James' strong vocal performance.
Allowed to cut loose in the studio, James imbues "Something's Got A Hold On Me" with a gospel fervor that shows her impressive singing range and the innate power of her voice. With church-choir styled backing vocals, James screams and shouts and croons throughout the song as if receiving divine inspiration. A R&B sensation, charting at #4, "Something's Got A Hold On Me" would also cross over to become a Top 40 pop hit.
By the late-1960s, soul music had changed, and Etta James did a fine job of keeping up with the trends. She hits this classic Clarence Carter song out of the park with a strong vocal performance delivered above raging hornplay and a driving rhythm. Recorded at the famous Muscle Shoals Studios, "Tell Mama" is a vintage slice of period soul that benefits from Rick Hall's energetic production and a backing band that included pianist Spooner Oldham, bassist David Hood, and guitarist Jimmy Johnson. The result? #23 pop, #10 R&B, an overall successful effort.
Although James seldom applied her enormous vocal talent to straight blues music, in spite of being one of Chess Records biggest stars, this 2004 take on the Elmore James classic "The Sky Is Crying" makes one wish that she'd taken on a few more blues numbers. Her voice is lower and richer than on her early hits, but it's lost nothing of its strength and subtlety, and accompanied here only by Brian Ray's lonely guitar strum, James takes the spotlight and runs away with it, supercharging the song with a lifetime of troubles and heartbreak.
An answer song to Hank Ballard's hit "Work With Me Annie," James' "The Wallflower" was renamed from "Dance With Me Henry" to pacify radio programmers outraged by its mature subject matter. The spry, upbeat R&B number featured 14-year-old James swapping verses with singer/songwriter Richard Berry; the song would top the R&B charts for four weeks in 1955.
A curiosity in the Etta James songbook, it's the singer's powerful vocals that raise the song above pop music mediocrity. The jazzy piano and string-laden orchestral arrangement work against each other here, but James' compelling vocals blast through the mix to soar on wings of pure emotion. "Trust In Me" became a Top 30 pop hit while rising to #4 on the R&B charts.