When Etta James lashed out at Beyoncé in 2009 for singing At Last at President Obama's inauguration party, most critics assumed James didn't like Beyoncé's interpretation of her 1961 hit. Or that she was envious of the invite. Truth is James probably didn't have a beef with Beyoncé's delivery at all. Case in point: James had recently publicly praised Beyoncé's depiction of her in the movie Cadillac Records.
Instead, James' acidic words more likely came from resentment—not of Beyoncé but of a system that has all but forgotten her enormous contribution to R&B, rock and roll and soul. Fortunately, we can now hear exactly what made the dynamic belter special and how she developed over the years on Etta James: Heart & Soul, a Retrospective (Hip-o Select).
Unlike many R&B singers of the early '50s who were born, raised and discovered in the South, James was from Los Angeles—a savvy hotbed of jump blues and R&B in the late '40s and early '50s. As jazz work dried up on the West Coast, many musicians who had relocated there began to switch to R&B to earn a steady living. For others, the music packed more raw, honest energy.
Many independent record labels like Apollo and Modern were quick to tap into the R&B talent pool. They maintained offices there and focused on blues artists who were cheaper to record, especially since many of the songs didn't require ASCAP royalty payments.
As this four-CD set reveals, James from the start was as dynamic and as high-voltage as Little Richard. Her first recording was Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry) in 1954. The single vaulted to No. 1 hit on Billboard's R&B chart in early 1955, and James continued to record throughout the '50s, often specializing in songs with a double entendre. She continued to record in the '60s and '70s (for Chess) while managing a heroin addiction, and continued to record into the the late 2000s.
The beauty of this set is that it spans from 1954 to 2007. The choices perfectly illustrate what makes James special and how her vocal attack has shifted over the years. From the early years, sample Good Rockin' Daddy and My Heart Cries. Moving forward, sample Do I Make Myself Clear (1965). 849-3089 (1966), Take It to the Limit (1977), Higher Ground (1987), Love Letters (2000) and Ashes By Now (2007).
What made James special back at the dawn of rock and roll were her powerful pipes and rollicking confidence. Unlike Dinah Washington, whose vocal snap and regal jukebox dominance came from a more staid jazz tradition, James was street and had nothing to lose by hammering out singles dripping with seduction and sex appeal. She also was less self-conscious and packed more sidewalk sass and rage.
This isn't Southern gospel, New York doo-wop or Chicago blues. It's R&B roots music, and James clearly is one of the first pure soul singers. But she also provides a look at why Los Angeles quickly became R&B's capital in the '50s—long before Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and Phil Spector leveraged the tough-girl sound.
JazzWax tracks: Etta James: Heart & Soul, a Retrospective (Hip-o Select) is a four-disc hardback set with bound-in book that features superb color photos and notes by Bill Dahl, who conducted an in-depth interview with James and others. You'll find this set at iTunes and here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Good Rockin' Daddy from 1955...