It is tempting to report that Etta James‘s latest CD, Let’s Roll, is a return to form that echoes her best R&B work from the 1950s and ‘60s, but that isn’t exactly true. First, the blues belting that James does here is against the background of electric rock ‘n’ roll influenced blues, not the Memphis or Chicago soul that James first became famous for. Her voice is not what it was, but few singers in their sixties sound like they did in their twenties and thirties, and James still gets the very best from her voice, more than most of her contemporaries can manage. So, while Let’s Roll sounds at times more like James fronting a Stones or Faces-influenced band, there’s still plenty of gritty soul, and still plenty of good singing.
Let’s Roll‘s opening cut, the Delbert McClinton/Gary Nicholson-penned “Somebody to Love”, gives a very accurate indication of where James is at on this CD. Featuring a sharp backing band that includes sons Donto and Sametto James on drums and bass respectively, the performance rocks without losing its sense of the blues. The trend continues on “The Blues Is My Business”, with David Mathews’s barrelhouse piano fills and Hammond B-3 accents as well as some Stevie Ray Vaughn-like guitar work. When Etta James sings “The Blues Is My Business/And Business Is Good”, you know she’s working damn hard to keep it that way. Shifting gears a bit on “Leap of Faith”, the singer brings in a bit of gospel influence and a horn section that fattens up the sound nicely. “Strongest Weakness”, co-written by Gary Nicholson and Bekka Bramlett, features some nice banjo playing from Josh Sklair, while Bobby Murray keeps a swampy electric guitar vibe going.
A large part of the success for this album can be attributed to James’s keen ear for songs that are particularly suited to her voice and singing style and her tasteful choice of collaborators. The majority of the songs here are written by Gary Nicholson or Kevin Bowe (one each with Delbert McClinton), and there is no question that a rootsy mix of blues, country, soul, R&B, and gospel is at work here, as might be expected. Minnesotean Bowe, formerly of the band the Revelators and one of few songwriters in recent memory to be signed to Lieber and Stoller’s publishing company, is steeped in the blues and in the tough-scrabble stories and sounds of country music. Nicholson has had over 300 of his songs covered by artists that include Garth Brooks, the Judds, Emmylou Harris, Reba McEntire, Stevie Nicks, and B.B. King. Those few songs not by one of these songwriters are squarely in the same vibe nonetheless. “A Change Is Gonna Do Me Good” is welcome ballad, but that doesn’t mean that the intensity of the performance comes down a notch. If anything, James turns it up a bit, delivering a heartfelt and restrained performance that demonstrates that sometimes maturity has its own rewards that are quite different from the technical prowess of youth. “Stacked Deck” is another perfect selection, written by Billy Wright, “Prince of the Blues” and a primary influence on Little Richard.
All of this adds up to a first rate performance, and one that can stand alongside her best work. James went looking for a uniquely American sound, the intersection of blues, R&B, soul, and gospel that is usually defined as rock ‘n’ roll, and she found it. There’s no one of her generation, and few since that can still perform with this kind of energy and verve. James’s voice has changed, certainly, but that simply affirms for the listener who has been through his or her own changes, whether physical, mental, or spiritual that she is being straight with them. It’s that kind of authenticity that keeps a career going the way that Etta James has kept hers going, through all kinds of adversity and good times. She just needs to sing, and we need to hear what she has to say.