Etta James: Blues to the Bone

Etta James
Blues to the Bone
RCA Victor

“Got my mojo working, but it just won’t work on you,” is the first sauntering line Etta James delivers on Blues to the Bone. The legendary songstress wastes no time in getting down and dirty in a bare-bones blues romp. All of the songs on James’s latest offering are standards from the Blues Boy’s Club, and James is one of the few female performers with enough sassy attitude to pull it off. Noting that there weren’t many women singing the blues, James “thought it was about time to show them (men) what these songs might sound like coming from a whole different point of view.” Inspired by last year’s Martin Scorcese-produced The Blues, James was determined to put the woman’s touch on the songs that have defined and shaped American music for a century. Etta James’s recent recordings have varied greatly, from the slick, overtly modern Sticking to My Guns, released in 1990, to her 1994 Grammy Award-winning Mystery Lady. But with this album of blues standards, James is so comfortable, confidently crying and husking the blues, that it is hard to imagine her singing anything else. Etta James is able, through the sheer soul in her voice, to breathe new life into compositions that have lived for years.

Child prodigy Etta James began singing in gospel choirs at age five, and it didn’t take long for her to hone her innately gifted voice into one of the most distinctly powerful in American music. Touring since she was 16, James first recorded in 1954 with Modern Records, then moved on to sign with legendary Chess Records in 1960. That professional relationship lasted until 1975 — around the time James fell into great personal turmoil, including a severe heroin addiction, as she has candidly documented in her autobiography, Rage to Survive. But survive she has, and Etta James is still singing with her legendary power and range.

On Blues to the Bone, James tackles some of the greatest blues compositions ever penned; even in her 60’s, when most voices have turned brittle and thin, James instead shines with a throaty punch. She nails both the spirit and the technicalities of each song, not missing a single inflection or note. Listen to John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ King Snake” creeping slyly along, as James’s voice allows the accompanying slide guitar to become her slithering instrumental counterpart. In “Dust My Broom”, James turns mystic, seeming to conjure the very spirit of Robert Johnson in his classic tune. “The Sky Is Crying”, written by the King of Slide Guitar Elmore James, is masterfully rendered into skin-chilling blues lament. Despite the fact the blues were born out of African-American hardships that most of us cannot fathom, when James growls, “I got a bad feeling, my baby don’t love me no more / Now the sky been crying, the tears rolling down my door”, you realize how truly universal the musical language of the blues is.

Etta James is a Hollywood Walk of Fame Star owner, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, a National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, and is ranked by VH1 as number 19 of the 100 most powerful women in Rock and Roll. James’s legendary status is undoubted, and has only one living musical equal — the great Aretha Franklin. But unlike Franklin, who has been relatively silent in recent years, Etta James persists in channeling her muse, turning out Grammy-worthy album after album. Refusing to rest on her laurels, James continues to solidify her legacy as one of music’s all-time greats.