Etta James famously remarked, “When I’m singing blues, I’m singing life.” And her life was blue in many ways—she had troubles with drugs and men; she never knew her dad. But the greatest tragedy of James’ life was probably her interactions with the music industry, which rarely gave her the outlet she deserved. James came up with the help of Johnny Otis, who also died last week. He gave the woman born Jamesetta Hawkins her stage name and helped her get her first recording contract with Modern Records. But it was her second contract, with Chicago’s famous Chess Records, that catapulted her to fame. Her debut album at Chess, At Last!, contained a number of hits: the famous title track, of course, but even better were the smooth, mournful rendition of “Stormy Weather” and the yearning “A Sunday Kind of Love”.
Few singers could match her ability to oscillate between immolation and seduction, pleading and strutting (Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin are the names that come to mind). On At Last!, light jazz percussion and loping pianos were James’ main backing, but Chess was looking for success with white audiences, and they didn’t give her much accompaniment that could match the muscle of her voice. She must have been holding back—or been held back by others—for she was often surrounded by bland string sections that her potent voice could crush with ease. Occasionally she’d blow through the arrangements anyway, going full-throated suddenly on the hook of the gentle “All I Could Do Is Cry”. But when she sang alongside brass on “I Just Want To Make Love To You”, you hear the raw blast of her vocal chords synergizing with those shiny, fat horns. This is where James truly belonged: she could sing anything, but she needed to be able to explode sometimes, and when she soared high or went down into the dirt, it sounded better if some instruments could go with her.
James’ finest moments were in 1967 and 1968, when she went to record at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, one of the big recording studios for Southern soul. This session resulted in the album Tell Mama, where Etta tore into blues and soul, ballads and stompers, without restraint. Her voice shines in front of the Muscle Shoals band, which provides an anchoring rhythm section, strong guitar riffs, and thick horns and organ that augment her dominant and versatile voice. She’s swaggering on the title track, large and very much in charge on “I’m Gonna Take What He’s Got”, clear but gritty on “Security”, and sultry and low on “Steal Away”. She was never as tragic or as moving as she was singing “I’d Rather Go Blind”. The instrumentation is simple—not that different from some of her melancholy early-career jazz standards—but fuller: the horns swell like her heart is about to explode, an organ presages doom, and the guitar feels irreparably glum. James is heart-broken to the point of self-destruction, her vocals sometimes slurred, sometimes steely in an effort to protect herself, punctuated with angelically anguished “ohs”. One of music’s most commanding voices was laid low. She simmers beneath the surface, but does not have it in her to explode, and this time we know it’s not because she wasn’t allowed too.
James recorded inconsistently in the 1970s, but finally kicked drugs and produced music regularly again starting in the ‘80s. Across decades and genres, you always know her when you hear her; it would be difficult to think of anyone who sang so well for so long. While embracing her extant body of work, it’s hard not to imagine how much more we might have gotten from her, if she’d managed to hook up with a label that knew how to handle a peerless voice. Etta’s blues? She didn’t get to give the world even more albums to cherish.