“Something told me it was over
When I saw you and her talking.
Something deep down in my soul said cry girl,
When I saw you and that girl walking.
I would rather,
I would rather go blind, boy,
Than to see you walk away from me, child.
So you see, I love you so much
That I don’t wanna watch you leave me, baby.
Most of all I just don’t,
I just don’t want to be free, no.
I was just, I was just,
I was just sitting here thinking
Of your kiss and your warm embrace,
When the reflection in the glass that I held to my lips, baby
Revealed the tears that was on my face.
Baby, Baby, I’d rather be blind, boy,
Than to see you walk away from me.”
—Etta James, 23 August, 1967 (Ellington Jordan/Billy Foster)
The above is one of the truly great moments in post-war music. Stark enough in print, when you add the controlled anguish of Etta James’ voice, the doom-laden guitar and the funereal organ its intensity becomes almost unbearable. Lasting less than three minutes, it contains enough pain and emotional depth to drop you to your knees at fifty yards. Built around a single, intolerable image, it is the essence of soulful blues. Only Syleena Johnson’s “Hit on Me” comes close, as far as 2001 goes. Perhaps only Linda Jones’ “For Your Precious Love” or Lorraine Ellison’s “Stay with Me, Baby” matched it, even in that era of outstanding female vocal performances. This welcome re-issue allows us to hear this classic in the proper context—as the high spot of four remarkable sessions at the Fame Studios, Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
By the time Etta James made the journey to Alabama she was already a veteran in the world of rhythm and blues. Born Jamesetta Hawkins in L.A. in 1938, she had made an early start on the local gospel scene before graduating to clubs and being spotted by the ever watchful Johnny Otis in the early fifties. He organised the name change and with “Dance with Me Henry” Etta made her mark on rock ‘n’ roll history. An answer to Hank Ballard’s “Work with Me Annie”, it too was famously banned for being overly suggestive (the real title was, of course, “Roll with Me Henry”), then suffered the iniquity of being covered by Georgia Gibbs—a white artist who specialised in anodyne and cynical re-makes of black hits. Gibbs’ bowdlerised version was the bigger seller but James had made her mark as singer of explosive power with a genuine, grown-up sexuality. After a number of further releases, she signed to Chess Records, where she scored with a series of lushly arranged R&B tunes such as “At Last” and “Sunday kind of Love”. On these dates she began to show a penchant for mixing in jazz, country and pop with her driving blues-based style—something that has remained a feature of her work.
Chart success rather dried up after 1963, although her duets with Sugar Pie DeSanto, especially “In the Basement”, are fondly remembered. It is a matter of regret that possibly the two most raunchy and dynamic live performers of the time did not team up on a longer-term basis. Unfortunately, James’ tempestuousness was not confined to her stage act. A series of turbulent relationships and an increasingly apparent problem with heroin caused periodic withdrawals from the public eye and threatened to destroy both her career and her life. Chess’ decision to send her south to record with producer Rick Hall was an attempt to see if soul music’s good ol’ boys could conjure up the same magic with her as they had done with Aretha Franklin. It was not quite a last ditch rescue effort, but all parties involved knew that there was a lot riding on this venture. Etta James made the most of the opportunity.
Muscle Shoals was hip and commercially hot in 1967. Fame Records had been producing gritty, bluesy soul for five years, but chart smashes for Atlantic, with Wilson Pickett and then Aretha Franklin, meant that the spotlight was now firmly on this odd little set-up. Much has been written about the supposed irony and incongruity of the fact that this home of a raw, “black” sound consisted of white players, mostly from a country music background. This is not the place to examine these issues, but it must be said that, as pleasing an argument as Muscle Shoals is against racial absolutists, much of that writing is based on various misconceptions. The equation of “raw” and “black” is deeply problematic for starters and a glance at any of the photos should (but, amazingly, doesn’t) demonstrate that both black and white musicians played on many of the most famous sessions (including this one). Anyway, it is the case that a very recognisable in-house sound had been developed from a hybrid of country, rock, blues and soul which fitted Etta James like a tailor-made glove.
There are only two basic Muscle Shoals styles—an uptempo, sax-led rhythm and blues, similar to the Stax sound, and the slow, bluesy reworking of a pop or country ballad. Predictability was minimised by dint of a team of talented songwriters-cum-session men, some of the most skilled ever. The icing on the cake was Hall’s insistence on always using a vocalist of presence and muscularity. All of which pretty much sums up Tell Mama. The title track is the best of the uptempo numbers, and, obviously, “I’d Rather Go Blind” the pick of the ballads. With the newly added material—you now get 18 other tunes in the same twin modes—a feast for lovers of that sixties’ southern soul sound.
Here I have to own up to a heresy. Whether it is the cumulative effect of the appalling Blues Brothers or The Commitments, and the coarsening of this style through their many spin-offs, I don’t know—but I find I am now rapidly bored stiff by the more rocking tunes. The first impact still hits home—the horn riffs on “Tell Mama” and Etta’s growling vocal attack—but it all gets tiresome and rather one-dimensional after a while. “Watchdog”, “My Mother-In-Law”, “Just a Little Bit” and “Fire” sound too familiar, too lacking in subtlety. They, and several others, are fine examples of the genre and show one side of Etta James off perfectly but the relentless, sledgehammer approach leaves me longing for some more nuanced playing.
I have, however, no such problem when the tempo drops. “The Love of My Man” harks back to her Chess sound of the late fifties. Barbara Lynn’s “You’ll Lose a Good Thing”, though lacking the poignancy of the original (also Hall produced), has an effective emotional directness and the two takes on Aretha’s “Do Right Woman” are excellent. Less impassioned and more resigned than Aretha’s reading, James’ deeper voice and more Urban Blues phrasing lends a specific realism to the song. Also of note is the country standard “Almost Persuaded”, which is completely convincing, as opposed to a rather lame version of “Misty” which should have been left in the more jazz-friendly hands of Chess’ northern house band. Much better is the down-to-the-bone masochism of “I’m Going to Take What He’s Got”. Etta and pain were no strangers and few could express those hurts even half as well.
Maybe you need the balance of up and down to get the total feel of both the era and this quintessentially Southern sound. Historically, both styles have a place of unquestioned importance in ‘60s music. Time after time you will hear echoes of other flavours from the period—British beat groups, other soul stars. A simple checklist of songwriters will send listeners of a certain age into nostalgic overdrive. This is an album that shows its age—but in the right way. Both as document and as tribute to one of America’s greatest singers at her peak this is a significant re-issue. It is also, for a soul record, reasonably well annotated—others please take note. Thankfully, after harder times in the 1970s, Etta James beat the drugs and is still performing and recording. There have been many memorable outings in the 30 odd years since this album saw light of day. There has never been, and possibly will never be, anything like “I’d Rather Go Blind”.