Argo Records, 1960Listening to Etta James can bring you as close as it’s possible to get to heaven without leaving your physical body behind you. Take the title track of her phenomenal debut album, At Last!: when James’s pure voice rises in perfect concert with the nuzzling strings, it’s as if flowers have spontaneously sprung into bloom, the clouds have parted and, for three glorious minutes, all is well with the world.
Born Jamesetta Hawkins, the story goes that the singer gained her stage name after meeting musician Johnny Otis. Cutting her teeth on the road as a member of the girl group, the Creolettes, James then signed to Chicago label, Chess Records, and took her first major steps on the stairway to stardom. The record is a mixture of pop and jazz standards, whose thrust is primarily centred on the pursuit of love. And through the song of this legend, the chase for romantic – forever a complicated business – sounds so sweet.
Trust in Etta
James has that much sought-after ability to sing as if she were singing to you alone. You can feel the conviction in her voice as she wills you to “trust in me” on the track of the same name, in a silky timbre that hooks the heart immediately. In her early career, she was capable of reaching remarkable registers and volume with her voice, moving from softy spoken serenades to heart-wrenching emotional hollers all by herself. Considering the technology that exists nowadays to manipulate and boost singers’ voices, listening to James is still a reminder of the profound talent that she, and her generation of singers, displayed.
For James’s part, she pours her talent into songs that have been written and arranged to be emotional gut punches or affectionate kisses. James, as the woman working, fighting and singing to gain the affections of the man she desires, goes through different shades on At Last! On ‘All I Could Do Was Cry’, there is the sombre-sounding voice of regret. She is attentive, as if gazing longingly at the one she loves, on doo-wop album closer ‘Girl of My Dreams’. Meanwhile, on the ever-popular ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’, James is every inch the woman on top, gliding over a bed of brass blasts and string sighs. And back on the side of love lost, James gives us about as definitive a version of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s ‘Stormy Weather’ as you’re likely to hear, with her sullen, yet beautifully crisp, voice narrating her tale of heartbreak in perfect accord with the accompanying instruments, that drape a figurative blanket over her as she sings.
Orchestration and attitude
It’s this range that makes At Last! such a spellbinding record the first time you hear it, and every subsequent time thereafter. The songs have pull, personality and grandeur to them. That’s down to two things. Firstly, the expert production by Phil and Leonard Chess, the arrangements and orchestration by Riley Hampton, and the devoted playing by the session musicians themselves. As with the opening of the title track, described earlier, the musicians bring forth a calming breeze through their harmonies and phrases. Musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron once said that music itself should say what a singer’s words are saying, otherwise “you have one composition and one set of words”. The music fits James like a glove, following the contours of her every inflection.
Such close-knit arrangements only add to the second main ingredient: James’s immutable delivery. You get a healthy taste of James’s allure, which lies between the social vulnerability of women of her time and roaring independence, on non-album tracks, ‘Spoonful’ and ‘It’s a Crying Shame’. These R&B hits were recorded with brown-eyed soul man, Harvey Fuqua. James’s bellowing cries will have your toes a-tapping and she’ll bring a smile to your lips with her sassy riposte on the latter duet (“Ya kiss everybody ya see…”). On the album itself, she is playful in spots (‘Tough Mary’), yet when she turns on her empathetic tones, as she does expertly on ‘A Sunday Kind of Love’, these good love songs are elevated to ageless classics.
At long last
Contemporary singers, such as Amy Winehouse, Paloma Faith, Beyoncé and Adele each have their own take on commanding vocal presence, but the legacy of their many fans, and the fellas who would fall at their feet, owes something to James. The charisma in her voice turns even the most minor of syllables into a gold drop.
Not unlike many who are thrust into the limelight and the pressures that come with it, social and personal issues caused James’s flame to dim in the latter half of her life. But At Last! will forever remain a shining example of what this musical deity was capable of in the company of top-class musicians. With its graceful orchestration and fairytale qualities, it is an album of passionate romance.
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