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Music

Six Definitive Songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to Etta James

@TomTaylorFO

“I wanna show that gospel, country, blues, rhythm and blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll are all just really one thing.” – Etta James

The late great Etta James had a voice that made silk seem coarse and satin about as comforting as a bailiff’s letter. Purring and smooth on the surface, her voice and style had an uncurrent of power that tore ears drifting out to sea. She applied this force to so many genres that her labels would complain she was neither fish nor fowl and her records were destined to be scattered around various sections of the very same record shop, but as per her mission statement above, James was determined to show that good music was simply good music, and boy oh boy did she make good music!

A native of the musical Los Angeles borough of Watts, James was fated to never have it easy when her mother became a single parent at the tragically tender age of only 14. The hardship she faced in her early years brought her to the comforting realm of music and she blossomed therein as a singer with blue in the chords of her voice stretching beyond her years. As if that wasn’t enough, her first vocal coach, even in her pre-teen years, would punch her in the chest while she was singing to force her voice to come from the gut. Her step-father, likewise, used her voice in harsh ways, drunkenly forcing her out of bed and making her perform for his friends gathered in the living room.

This harsh treatment caused James to have difficulties singing on demand throughout her career, but she nevertheless asserted: “When I look out at the people and they look at me and they’re smiling, then I know that I’m loved. That is the time when I have no worries, no problem.” This contentment was clear to audiences as she enamoured them with not only one of the greatest voices ever to grace a stage but also a brimming sense of bravado. The same be said for her blistering recording studio sessions. 

Below, we have compiled the best of them. From her early days emerging from the famed Nashville R&B club circuit to her later covers of The Rolling Stones and the likes as she broadened her musical horizons and entered the rock ‘n’ roll scene with her own unique style. She may have sadly passed away in 2012, but along the way, she burned a trail of defiance so bright and offered up music so blissful that in these troubled and hectic times, she is the perfect artist to seek solace in. 

The six definitive songs of Etta James:

‘At Last’

At Last! is James’ debut studio album, released in 1960 after the vocalist had already made the circuits of the day swoon with her stunning live performance. The title track may well be ostensibly about finding a lover, but there is more than a hint that the eventually that James celebrates like a bursting party popper pertains to her musical dream coming to fruition. 

If James has found a thrill to rest her cheek to, then we are the benefactors she’s resting upon. The song is a gift to the world, no matter how many adverts try to nullify its appeal, and it retains a burning joie de vivre to this very day. Without ever straining it can rattle the rafters and with the culminating final note, James announced herself as the premier singer of the day. 

‘Something’s Got a Hold on Me’

Returning to a more gospel derived style for her third studio album, James helped Leroy Kirkland and Pearl Woods pen a classic, then burst the seams of it with a salvo of wine-glass smashing notes. The resulting song has such inherent rhythm that it has been sampled a thousand times over by a slew of modern studios. 

It might only waltz along at 72 beats per minute but the ferocity of James’ near two-octave vocal take seems to inject a dose of adrenaline and whisks it along. It might be typically gospel in a musicological sense, but James’ eclectic sensibilities give the song a timeless appeal that many modern artists have tried to tap into.

‘I’d Rather Go Blind’

“Something told me it was over, when I saw you and her talking,” James begins. It is the sort of cliched line that frequent FAME studios style soul like sitting ducks, but sometimes soul makes cliches make you wonder why there is any other sort of music? 

Hammond organs compliment James’ voice like gravy on chicken and the resulting sonic soul food is just as comforting as the real thing. Hearty and wholesome, this breakup tune may not be as bracing as some dower folk ballad, but that cushioning blow is what makes it such a warm hug. 

‘The Sound of Love’

Coming out with an album titled Etta James Sings Funk after you’ve just conquered soul and funk was barely off the ground is a mark of her daring view of tackling any genre that seemed to suit her. After all, she claimed they were all one and the same and came under a singular bracket of “American culture”. While the Bee Gees penned song ‘The Sound of Love’ might not be the funkiest of funk and has more in common with Motown meets Scott Walker, that still goes to show her unique singularity. 

Dramatic and classy, the song is the perfect fit for a performer who exhibited both adjectives with aplomb throughout her career. It might be more like a James Bond theme than most of her work, but an Etta James introduction would not be complete without a surprising sideswipe. 

‘Miss You’

On her 24th studio album, Matriarch of the Blues, James returned to her roots in style. Of all the blues tracks she tackled on the record, this Rolling Stones classic is the one that provides the most swinging hips. James has more elegant swagger than the biggest swan on the lake and she pours all of that attitude into a vocal take that would make Mick Jagger gulp.

While, in truth, the true triumph of the track comes from the outstanding arrangement that James’ sons, Donto and Sametto, ushered into place, it is a mark of her eye for rhythm that she always knew what sort of sound would work best for her. The whole thing comes together beautifully and remains one of the best Rolling Stones covers ever put to tape. 

‘Cigarettes & Coffee’

James may well have switched between genres as though it simply depended on the seasons, soul was always her natural habitat. Thus, why not tackle one of the greatest soul songs ever written. On her final album, before sadly succumbing to the leukaemia she was battling during the production, she reprised Otis Redding’s classic as though it had been written for her all along.

Her quiet power has never been more evident; without a hair falling out of place, James launches a subtle vocal attack on the song. Her full deep voice has a careworn beauty, and her performative interpretation gives the track a fitting lived-in feel—the result is as perfect as that first garden sipped Saturday morning cup of coffee in spring.