“I wanna show that gospel, country, blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, are all just really one thing. Those are the American music and that is the American culture.” – Etta James
Etta James, a powerful vocalist, did succeed to blend all the forms of music and bridge the gaps of creativity through her music. She glided from genre to genre, starting with rhythm and blues and doo-wop then moving on to the more commercial pop music and finally to soul and jazz. Her musical intelligence allowed her to master any form and improvise quickly.
Too brilliant to be contained, James made her presence felt with her head-turning debut album At Last! Released by Argo Records in 1960, the album became a huge success reaching number 12 on the Billboard Top Catalogue Album chart. Among the ten songs that the LP contained, four were released as singles, the most remarkable being the title song. It’s arguably one of the most potent singles ever released.
‘At Last’ was originally composed for the 1941 musical Sun Valley Serenade starring John Payne and Sonja Henie. Penned by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, the tune was recorded several times by the legendary Glenn Miller and his orchestra. Although made for the film, it was saved for later as studio head Darryl Zanuck said, “There are too many big ones in this. Let’s save one for the next.” Payne and Henie’s vocals being erased, only some instrumental versions of the song got featured in the film.
It was probably for the best as the 1942 version that was sung by the same duo of Heinie-Payne became much more popular than its one-year-old predecessor. Appearing in the Anne Rutherford and George Montgomery starer musical Orchestra Wives, it once again saw a Glenn Miller orchestration. A Ray Eberle and Miller collaboration was also released by RCA Victor as a US army V-disc in 1943 during the Second World War, copies of which were shipped overseas to the soldiers and military men.
The song became a common favourite for many artists since 1942. Apart from Miller’s dozen other versions, Ray Anthony, Gene Watson, Celine Dion, Beyonce all delivered beautiful covers of the song. But Etta James’ cover is a special one, like any truly great artist would, she made the song her own.
James’ version witnesses much mellow orchestration which makes the song even more romantic. She took the liberty of improvising the main melody line without pushing it too far. Although the sweeping instrumentation allows James’ voice to shine, the isolated vocals of the song give the listeners a chance to treat their ears with James’ stunning raw vocals. One cannot help but marvel at how she controls her deep and earthy voice which bursts into strong, celebratory parts just after singing a soft and tender line. Her soul-stirring delivery is laden with emotions and a sense of freedom at the same time.
Without wasting time anymore, let’s listen to Etta James’ isolated vocals for ‘At Last.’