[8 May 2011]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Boy, Ms. Etta James sure was pissed off at Beyonce. Yes, she did praise the former Destiny’s Child star for her portrayal of James in Cadillac Records, a movie far more entertaining than most give it credit for. But it didn’t take long for those kind words to dissipate into nothingness when the legend spoke in Seattle after word got out that Beyonce covered her classic, “At Last”, in 2009.
“The great Beyonce”, she said at a concert in Seattle, referencing a performance Ms. Knowles had recently put on for President Barack Obama. “She has no business up there, singing up there on a big, ol’ president day, gonna be singing my song that I’ve been singing forever. She’s going to get her ass whipped. I can’t stand Beyonce”.
And rightfully so. Or, well, kind of, at least. The “Single Ladies” singer’s take on James in the aforementioned movie was self-indulgent. It took the career of a truly timeless singer and eventually (as you begin to see around half-way through the flick) minimized its importance by becoming a screen test for Knowles’ already-failed film career. Forget the fabricated ending, Adrian Brody’s crazy nose or even the sometimes cheesy directions the movie took. The real problem was how intent the singer was on trying to compound as many performances of Etta James songs she could get into one 90-minute showcase. Cadillac Records? Nope. The Beyonce Show? Yep.
Why that’s such a bad thing doesn’t have much to do with her voice – aesthetically, both singers share a certain flavor of female vocals that admittedly can go hand in hand. Rather, the atrocity of Beyonce’s take on Etta James in that particular movie boils right down to the one thing that made Ms. James the legend she is today: attitude. Hard as she may try, “You should have put a ring on it” can’t even begin to stand in the same room as “Jesse James and Frank James / Baddest men in the land / We got some women who’d make ‘em eat now / Out of your hand”.
Now that’s power.
It’s precisely that power that shines on Etta James: The Essential Modern Records Collection, a compilation aimed at showcasing the singer’s first 15 singles and B-sides. The collection comes mostly from the mid-to-late ‘50s and features James in quite possibly the best form she has ever been in. It’s a form dripping with hunger, one that absolutely demands attention (so much, actually, that these were the songs that landed her first tour, a jaunt with someone named Richard Wayne Penniman, or as you may know him now, Little Richard).
“The Wallflower (aka “Roll With Me Henry”)”, the singer’s career-catapulting first single in 1955, shines here as much as ever, with the un-credited Richard Berry providing the male voice she so eagerly exchanges words with. The song, a response to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me, Annie”, epitomizes the greatest era of rhythm & blues music. It’s story, explained through conversation over a bopping juke-like beat that offers peppy backing female harmonies and a saxophone to boot, that holds weight due to only James’ dominance of the vocal track. Without her effort – and such a mind-boggling effort, considering how she was only 17 years old when she cut it – the track simply wouldn’t have worked. Her presence alone speaks volumes louder than your favorite set of speakers.
That type of timeless maturity carries over to “W-O-M-A-N”, a song penned in response to Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man”. Though the track didn’t repeat the success she received from “The Wallflower”, it certainly cemented her as a force to be reckoned with amongst her R&B peers in the late 1950s. The track’s bluesy feel combines perfectly with her kiss-off approach, proving to be brilliant recoil to an already-brilliant song.
“The Pick Up” is great fun, as the singer exchanges a sultry conversation with a saxophone, a trick no one dare try today. It’s the perfect soundtrack to a night you might best soon forget. “Good Rockin’ Daddy” is still slow rockabilly with inspired vocals and a backing band that bleeds authenticity. And “Crazy Feeling (aka Do Something Crazy)” is the perfect precursor to what would be her greatest song, “I’d Rather Go Blind”, as its balladry and vulnerability make for an unforgettable translation on record.
1956’s “Tough Lover” may be the greatest Etta James track nobody ever remembers. On The Essential Modern Records Collection, it proves the years have been kind to it. Using the benefit of a soulful horn section, some well-placed hand claps and an aggressive appeal that forces any listener to feel exactly what she’s singing, one has to wonder if anyone has been able to put out the fire that just had to be ignited in the studio once she finished recording the vocal track.
Ahh, yes. That fire. It’s that fire that makes Etta James one of the most important female voices in the history of popular music. It’s that fire that is prominent more on this collection than on any of the others, only because it chronicles the stubborn teenager as she was making that breathless transition into a strong woman. It’s a fire that became at least a little smothered when she moved onto her second act at Chess Records. It’s a fire that the world of music didn’t quite know all that much about at the time of these recordings. Fortunately, though, we have all since become aware of exactly how ferocious Ms. Etta James is and can be.
If you still don’t believe in that fire after having a listen to these particular performances, just ask Beyonce.