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(Verve Forecast 16128 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/16/2011)
While good blues singers have come from a lot of different backgrounds, some artists have really lived the blues. Certainly someone in that category is Etta James, who has just released her first studio album in some five years, The Dreamer, and it's one of her finer recordings in an over 50 year career.
Jamesetta Hawkins was born in Los Angeles in 1938 to a 14-year-old mother and an unknown father. She was brought up by a series of caregivers, and by age 5, she was given some musical training at a Baptist church and sang in the choir. In 1950, she moved to San Francisco and formed a doo-wop group with two other girls. They were spotted by R&B star Johnny Otis, and he eventually recruited the group to record, and that led to Ms. James' first #1 R&B hit, Wallflower in 1955. Ms. James went solo, and toured with Little Richard and Johnny "Guitar" Watson around that period.
In 1960, she began an 18-year stint with Chess Records, whose producer Leonard Chess often put her in large arrangements with strings, sometimes doing jazz standards. That also proved to be successful, though she is better-known for R&B-styled hits like the classic Something's Got a Hold on Me in 1962.
But by the mid-1960s, she began a long battle with heroin addiction, which not only derailed her career but put her in rehab centers and psychiatric hospitals for a year-and-a-half, as well as getting into trouble with the law. In 1988, she entered the Betty Ford Center and finally cleaned up her act.
The following year, she began a series of widely acclaimed recordings that won Grammy Awards, and led to her induction in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She came to be known to many for her version of I Just Want to Make Love To You, which was used in a television commercial. Many popular contemporary artists have cited Ms. James as a significant influence, from the Rolling Stones to Any Winehouse to Joss Stone. Another artist who cited Ms. James as an influence was Beyoncé Knowles, who was denounced by Ms. James at of all places, President Obama's inaugural ball, for Beyonce's thinly disguised portrayal of Ms. James in a film and her version of one of Ms. James' hits.
In recent years, she was been working with her sons, drummer Donto James who, and bassist Sametto James. Her output has been varied from the great, straight-ahead blues of her CD Let's Roll, to a jazz standards CD called Mystery Lady in 1994, to a couple of recordings done in Nashville, which absorbed a bit of the musical influence from there, though they were hardly country.
Now she is out with her strongest album in several years, The Dreamer. And ironically, she has announced that at age 73 this will be her last album before her retirement. It's all cover material, much of it from some of the great R&B performers of the past, with a solid tasteful backing what is very much in the Memphis style. She does songs by Otis Redding, her old colleague Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Ray Charles, Bobby Blue Band and Jerry Butler, and just to mix things up, a tune by Guns & Roses. Interestingly, most of the songs are positive in mood, mostly celebrating love, rather than being about having the blues. There are only a couple of breakup songs. So it keeps the mood generally up.
The Dreamer opens with track with the classic Memphis soul sound, King Floyd's Groove Me. Ms. James seems to be perfectly in her element. <<>>
One of two Otis Redding compositions on the CD is called Champagne & Wine. It's another of those upbeat soul songs that makes this album so strong. <<>>
Among the relatively few lyrically downcast songs is the title track, Bobby Blue Bland's Dreamer. It's given a rather atmospheric treatment which works quite well, and is nicely performed by Ms. James. <<>>
The Guns N' Roses song that Ms. James covers is Welcome to the Jungle, which she and her band turn into a piece of classic Memphis-style soul. <<>>
Another of the CD's highlights is the song Boondocks, which is perhaps the most eclectic stylistic blend on this CD. There's bits of some folky acoustic guitar as well as the Gospel-influenced backing vocals. <<>>
Ms. James goes back to an early 1950s R&B sound for the Johnny "Guitar" Watson song Too Tired. With the big horn arrangement and the driving boogie beat, it's an interesting contrast between the lyrics' expression of weariness and the utterly danceable groove. <<>>
My favorite track on the CD is Ray Charles' great old ballad In the Evening. Ms. James and the band are in top form. <<>>
The CD ends with Let Me Down Easy. It's the recording's lengthiest track and it's done as another classic soul ballad. <<>>
Etta James is one of America's most durable and often-underrated blues and soul singers. Though her career and life has had its times of turmoil, in recent years, she has been winning some of the recognition she that her nearly 60 year recording career should have earned her. Her new CD is one of her strongest in years, with Ms. James concentrating on what she does best, with a fine collection of songs from others.
Our grade for audio quality is an A-minus. The band instrumentation is well-recorded, warm and punchy, but Ms. James' vocals often sound detached from the rest of the band in the mix and don't have a very intimate quality. The vocals were no doubt done like most pop album vocals, as overdubs, but they could have been better melded together.
Ms. James announced that this would be her final planned studio album. Last year, after she was hospitalized with an infection, her son Donto announced that she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2009, and in January of this year, she began treatment for leukemia. So how long she continues to perform remains to be seen. Hopefully, she'll be with us for a good while longer. But if this CD is in fact Etta James' valedictory, she has made her exit in style.
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