Etta James followed her two deeply jazzy mid-'90s albums of torch songs with Love's Been Rough on Me, a flirtation with Nashville writers. On Life, Love & the Blues, she returns to her blues and soul repertoire, enlivening even the hoariest of tunes ("Spoonful," a gender-flopped "Hoochie Coochie Gal") with her growl. The tinges of funk underpinning "Born Under a Bad Sign" are given full room to stretch on a cover of Sly Stone's "If You Want Me to Stay," and James nearly swipes "The Love You Save May Be Your Own," one of Joe Tex's great preaching ballads, from the master.
The singer in her precocious formative years, headed by her 1955 R&B smash "Roll With Me Henry" (aka "The Wallflower"). James' follow-ups included the driving "Good Rockin' Daddy," a bluesy "W-O-M-A-N," and the New Orleans raveup "Tough Lover," which found her backed by the gang at Cosimo's (notably saxman Lee Allen). Even though her tenure at Modern Records only produced a handful of hits, these 22 cuts are delightful artifacts of the belter's earliest days. The music and liner notes are identical to the previous R&B Dynamite reissue, except that the tracks have been slightly resequenced, and a couple of songs bear different titles ("Number One" has been changed to "My One and Only," "How Big a Fool" to "Call Me a Fool").
As the title suggests, this is the definitive edition of Etta James' Tell Mama long-player. For this single-disc release the original album is augmented with five previously unissued tracks – documented during James' four Muscle Shoals sessions circa '67-'68. The question of why a rural Alabama town became a conduit for some of the most memorable and instantly identifiable grooves may still be up for debate. The evidence exists in droves and Tell Mama could certainly be considered exhibit A. These sessions feature the same impact that would redirect several first ladies of soul. Notable among them are Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis, Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) and to somewhat lesser acclaim, Jackie DeShannon's Jackie. Tell Mama showcases some of the unique and admittedly darker qualities of what might best be described as R&B noir. "I'd Rather Go Blind," "Steal Away," "I'm Gonna Take What He's Got" all exemplify the essence of the blues – making the best of a bad situation.
Come a Little Closer is a surprisingly effective mating of a distinctive singer with seemingly incongruous material and production. Helmed by Gabriel Mekler, who'd produced Steppenwolf and Three Dog Night, the record features Etta James supported by a slew of hotshot L.A. session men (including Little Feat's Lowell George). The song selection ranges from "St. Louis Blues" to Randy Newman's perverse "Let's Burn Down the Cornfield" to the dramatic, melismatic "Feeling Uneasy," in which the junk-hungry James improvised wordlessly over an otherwise blues progression. Here's more evidence that Etta is one of the most versatile vocalists of her era.
Simply one of the greatest live blues albums ever captured on tape. Cut in 1963 at the New Era Club in Nashville, the set finds Etta James in stellar shape as she forcefully delivers her own "Something's Got a Hold on Me" and "Seven Day Fool" interspersed with a diet of sizzling covers ("What'd I Say," "Sweet Little Angel," "Money," "Ooh Poo Pah Doo"). The CD incarnation adds three more great titles, including an impassioned reprise of her "All I Could Do Was Cry." Guitarist David T. Walker is outstanding whenever he solos.
In many ways Etta James resembled a female Ray Charles in her unerring ability to tackle (and sometimes combine) all of the strands of American popular music, from rock & roll to R&B, blues, country, gospel, jazz, and pure pop and soul, while still maintaining a distinct feel and sound that was all her own, and she did this throughout a five-decade career that is impressive for its consistency. This 25-track set (mostly drawn from her time with Chess Records) is hardly definitive (it doesn't have classic James' tracks like "Anything to Say You're Mine," "Don't Cry Baby," "Something's Got a Hold on Me," or the girl group pop of "Two Sides (To Every Story)," for instance, or any of her late-career blues tracks), but it does do a good job of spotlighting James' range and versatility by collecting sides like her signature "At Last," the soul-pop masterpieces "Tell Mama" and "I'd Rather Go Blind," and saucy versions of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" and Randy Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On," all of which offer ample proof that James was one of the best singers of her generation – in any style.
After her tough blues and R&B records in the early years of the 21st century – 2003's Let's Roll and 2004's Blues to the Bone – Etta James throws a quiet storm changeup. All the Way's 11 tracks are pop songs – indeed, a few are standards – written between the 1930s and the 1990s. James song choices are curious. The Great American Songbook tunes include the title track (written by Samuel Kahn and Jimmy Van Heusen), Leonard Bernstein's and Stephen Sondheim's "Somewhere" from West Side Story, and even Bob Telson's "Calling You" from the score to the 1987 film Baghdad Cafe – it's been recorded by everyone from Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion to Jeff Buckley and Gal Costa…