Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Etta James

  • Etta James Sings Funk [Cadet, 1970] B
  • Losers Weepers [Cadet, 1971] B+
  • Etta James [Chess, 1973] B
  • Come a Little Closer [Chess, 1974] B-
  • Etta Is Betta Than Evvah! [Chess, 1976] B
  • Deep in the Night [Warner Bros., 1978] B
  • Her Greatest Sides, Vol. 1 [Chess, 1983]  
  • Seven Year Itch [Island, 1988] B+
  • The Essential Etta James [Chess, 1993] A-
  • Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday [Private, 1994] A-
  • Time After Time [Private Music, 1995] Neither
  • Her Best [MCA, 1996] A
  • Life, Love and the Blues [Private Music, 1998] Neither
  • Heart of a Woman [Private Music, 1999] **
  • The Chess Box [Chess, 2000] A
  • Matriarch of the Blues [Private Music, 2000] B+
  • Blue Gardenia [Private Music, 2001] A-
  • Let's Roll [Private Music, 2003] Dud
  • The Essential Modern Records Collection [Virgin, 2011] A-
  • The Dreamer [Verve Forecast, 2011] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Etta James Sings Funk [Cadet, 1970]
As you can read on the back, funk isn't a style or something like that--it's just, well, Etta. Etta with chorus, Etta with full brass, Etta with strings even. Etta singing a Gershwin song, Etta singing a Bee Gees song, Etta singing three Acuff-Rose songs, Etta singing four Pearl Woods songs. (Pearl Woods?) Highlights: the Acuff-Rose songs. B

Losers Weepers [Cadet, 1971]
Kittenish one moment and cathouse the next, James offers disappointingly subtle pleasures for such a big singer--except for two ASCAP standards, the title song is the only one I'd care to hear from someone else, and not even James's foxy delight in her own moods can salvage some of them. Nor will the orchestrations--conventional in blues, soul, and big-band modes--draw anyone in. But these days only Tina Turner (who couldn't provide subtle pleasures if she wanted to) seems to get much of a kick out of the down and dirty, and James's uninhibited sense of humor and fondness for sexual combat finally jollies this album over the line. B+

Etta James [Chess, 1973]
Gabriel Mekler (of Steppenwolf, Kozmic Janis, Nolan Porter) introduces Etta to the rock audience with three Randy Newman covers plus, and it almost works. To hear this gospel-trained ex-junkie turn "God's Song" into a jubilantly sarcastic antihymn is to know why pious blacks consider blues devil music, and Tracy Nelson fans should hear how low "Down So Low" can get. James is full-bodied, bitter, hip without sounding educated about it. But she has trouble finding a female persona for "Sail Away" and "Leave Your Hat On." And she has trouble making anything at all out of Mekler's own stuff. B

Come a Little Closer [Chess, 1974]
Last time Gabriel Mekler went one for three as a songwriter and half-ruined his producee's album. This time he goes two for six. A "Mekler" tune on which Etta does nothing but moan is one of the good ones, which will give you an idea of whose contribution matters. "St. Louis Blues" is also a winner. B-

Etta Is Betta Than Evvah! [Chess, 1976]
What a mess. The side-openers--"Woman (Shake Your Booty)" (she's dirty and she's proud) and "Jump Into Love" ("You gotta wallow in it," opines a lowdown male chorus)--promise an album of raunch after all that classy stuff. But except for a literal version of King Floyd's "Groove Me," the only other raunch here is Randy Newman's "Leave Your Hat On," which Mekler originally produced. Makes a lot more sense in this context. B

Deep in the Night [Warner Bros., 1978]
Most of James's albums suffer from radical unevenness; this one is marred by its consistency. Producer Jerry Wexler's song choices are as tastefully imaginative as his arrangements, but James has never had much midrange, and her versions of (good) material from such luminaries as Kiki Dee, the Eagles, and Alice Cooper are inferior to the originals. She doesn't get much out of "Piece of My Heart," either. That said, I'll admit to enjoying side two--opening with a jaunty "Lovesick Blues" and touching base at gospel (Dorothy Love Coates), soul (Allen Toussaint), and r&b (revamping her own "I'd Rather Go Blind"). But it's still a little boring. Which means it's not the real Etta. B

Her Greatest Sides, Vol. 1 [Chess, 1983]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

Seven Year Itch [Island, 1988]
Unbeknownst to white people, she was Soul Sister Number Two--more and better top-20 r&b back when than Dionne Warwick, Martha Reeves, Tina Turner, Carla Thomas, Irma Thomas, any black woman besides Soul Sister Number One and Diana Ross, who belongs to pop. She's been a cult heroine since around the time she kicked heroin in 1974--albums with Wexler and Toussaint, tour with the Stones, etc. But her many post-'60s recordings have disappointed: often out of touch with herself (didn't kick alcohol till much later), she could coast on savvy and a fabulously down-and-dirty voice. So I expected not much from what turns out to be her best album since she met Barry Beckett at the Tell Mama sessions in 1968. Part of the difference is Beckett, the producer who's constructed the solidest bottom and sharpest top of her career, but mostly it's the something extra she invests in these half-remembered Memphis-type standards. Not all the way there--all the way there is hard after 35 years in the biz. But not cult-only either. B+

The Essential Etta James [Chess, 1993]
The oft-bemoaned limits on her fame and fortune can't be passed off on her habit, her realness, or her distribution. Sometimes it was just that her music wasn't so hot. Between inconsistent material and workaday studio support, even her hits are a motley bunch, and crossover mentors Gabriel Mekler and Esmond Edwards never let their failure to map a plausible direction stop them from taking her for a ride. But even so, the tiger in her kittenish timbre combined formidably with her undeniable, unreliable smarts for r&b as seminal as "In the Basement," "Sunday Kind of Love," and "I'd Rather Go Blind." And Esther Phillips was the only peer to take so naturally to the likes of "One for My Baby" and "Prisoner of Love." A-

Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday [Private, 1994]
Holiday is a great American artist, a genius whose musical improvisations only deepened an unfathomable persona that was sweet, willing, knowing, suspicious, sly, cynical, and impossibly unhappy before she hit 25 and then gained texture as her body broke down. James is merely a fine r&b singer who's been stroking her cult since before she had one. Entertaining an audience of self-anointed sophisticates who had a thing for earthy music, she fell into the habit of cutting her own earthiness with a flattering wink and coasting from there, and as she herself would tell you, preferably while signing your CD booklet, it would be stupid to buy this before taking on Holiday--Columbia's young three-disc box (with Billie, crappy material just adds to the challenge), or Verve's mature two-disc set (with Billie, a ravaged voice ditto). But short of Chess's young two-disc Essential Etta James, it's Etta's most consistent and musical album--her melodic nuances are every bit as hip as the ace backup of Cedar Walton's tight septet. Beyond repertoire, it has little to do with Billie--at most, Etta suggests Holiday's tough soul the way Diana Ross did her pop smarts. But compared to Miki Howard's disgracefully self-aggrandizing "tribute" or Terence Blanchard's dismayingly schmaltzy "songbook," it's an act of love. It's also a hell of a torch record. A-

Time After Time [Private Music, 1995] Neither

Her Best [MCA, 1996]
In addition to her junkie ways, her hack support, her adoring claque, and her bewildering discography, what makes James a myth and a secret at the same time is how hard she is to classify. Blues, jazz, pop, rock, soul--she's all of these and none, because what she really is is r&b, in its original sense: blues so fetching white people can't help but love 'em even though they're aimed at young blacks. She's got that kid thing--a big reason her dirty voice is such a permanent scandal is that for all the hard experience she conveyed at 15 she still sounds underage as she comes up on 60, never outgrowing a sensibility she was old-beyond-her-years for as she worked through the '50s and behind-the-times with when she hit in the '60s. She's been recycled as relentlessly as the grease in a french fryer. But from the makeout-party schmaltz of "Sunday Kind of Love" to the Muscle Shoals fatback of "Tell Mama," this 20-song exploitation finally gets her sensibility right. A

Life, Love and the Blues [Private Music, 1998] Neither

Heart of a Woman [Private Music, 1999]
Torching cocktail cool ("My Old Flame," "I Only Have Eyes for You"). **

The Chess Box [Chess, 2000]
More is more. Time and again, especially when this early bloomer is still in her twenties, she defeats ordinary songwriting and production far more decisively than Aretha did at Columbia. Aretha's her competition, too--even today, James's voice is a wonder, so gritty it's filthy and so sweet it's filthier than that. Only 22 when this 1960-76 span began, she was possessed of a shrewd intelligence that understood standards like "Lover Man" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" just fine--r&b singers had been changing pace with the stuff since the '40s. She only stumbled artistically when she learned how meaningful she was. Graded leniently for deep-sixing Randy Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On." A

Matriarch of the Blues [Private Music, 2000]
Produced by the well-bred rhythm section of drummer Donto James and bassist Sametto James, this is half riskily irreverent rock and roll and half perilously imperious blues. Beyond an inconclusive Creedence cover, she co-owns every non-blues--"Miss You"! "Gotta Serve Somebody"! "Try a Little Tenderness"! Otis's chortling "Hawg for Ya"! Al's unremembered "Rhymes"! "Hound Dog," which counts aab or not! But neither the horns nor the B.B. homages will inspire the dutiful bluesboy to return to his long-abandoned O.V. Wright and Little Milton studies. From Big Mama Thornton to Shemekia Copeland, no woman has sung such material with more power. So maybe power isn't what it needs. Maybe it needs more irreverence. B+

Blue Gardenia [Private Music, 2001]
Churning out an album a year as she advances on 65, James has actually gotten better, settling into her iconicity more confidently than, for instance, Buddy Guy. Next to Aretha, she's the greatest black woman singer of the rock era hands down. Yet rock doesn't bring out the best in her, because it tempts her to overstate, and resisting temptation has never been her gift. On this straightforward standards collection, cut like the 1994 Billie Holiday tribute Mystery Lady with Cedar Walton and friends, she takes it easy, letting the songs do the talking and leaving you to wonder whether her modest melodic variations bespeak sly musicality or weathered pipes. Both, bank on it. In 1994, the Billie shtick seemed slightly presumptuous. No more. A-

Let's Roll [Private Music, 2003] Dud

The Essential Modern Records Collection [Virgin, 2011]
With awe for the atypical Arlene Smith and respect to the late-breaking Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee, Jamesetta Hawkins had the most physically remarkable female voice of the '50s. "So gritty it was filthy and so sweet it was filthier than that" is what I came up with to promote 2000's Chess Box. But on these 15 pre-Chess tracks, the first recorded when she was 15 and the last before she was 20, the grit is sometimes a gurgle in a soprano on its way down to alto, a serration in an instrument she used to cut--quite a weapon for jailbait whose flirty ways survived well into her long junkie decades. Relieved by straight novelties like "Shortnin' Bread Rock" and "The Pick-Up," where Harold Battiste's tenor sax plays the part of the mack, the material tends boilerplate r&b, and half a century later, Leiber-Stoller's "Tears of Joy" doesn't sound all that much craftier than Davis-Josea's "Good Lookin'." There's too much of the same on Flair's 25-year-old R&B Dynamite, which omits "Shortnin' Bread Rock" and adds only the very early "Be My Lovey Dovey" to her A list, though it includes all the obvious keepers. I prefer this in part because it's shorter. Makes the voice easier to treasure. A-

The Dreamer [Verve Forecast, 2011]
A hard liver, she's sounded old for a while. This is different--weary, diminished. Yet the physical and even mental diminution enriches the music. It was cool for her long-passed youngblood homeboy Johnny Watson to claim he was "Too Tired," but it's cooler for James to remember that song half a century later and sing it against tempo as if she may not get all the way to 2:34. The "Surely someone will understand me" of Bobby Bland's failed crossover title tune resonates differently from a dying woman. It's also different for a ghetto woman born and raised to seize "Welcome to the Jungle" and tell Axl, "If you got the money we got your disease." And having eased right into Otis Redding's blissful "Champagne and Wine," she then transforms his bone-tired, just-off-the-road marriage proposal "Cigarettes and Coffee" into an evocation of old love so calm you believe she achieved some bliss of her own, and domestic bliss at that. A-

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