Etta James is one of soul music’s great survivors. She’s been making music and scoring hits since the 50s and though life has thrown untold problems her way, she constantly won through. She’s won numerous accolades – including six Grammys, two Hall Of Fame Awards and a prestigious Lifetime Achievement award, and, yes, Aretha Franklin can still lay claim to the title “Queen of Soul” but Miss James can rightly say she’s (to use one of her own album titles) “Matriarch Of The Blues”. Sadly the problems we’ve just alluded to have finally caught up with her. Etta James is now ravaged by illness and so, we’re told, this will be her last album… but the wonderful 11 tracker is a fitting way to bow out.
The set is essentially a collection of well chosen covers of blues and soul standards originally recorded by stars as iconic as Ms. James herself – Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Bobby Bland and Johnny “Guitar” Watson amongst them and, sure, the voice might lack the energy and drive of years gone by but – especially on the slower numbers – it sounds quite remarkable … world weary, broken, ravaged, knowing … yes, a definition of soul. Try the take on ‘Misty Blue’ to hear what I mean. A version of Little Milton’s ‘Let Me Down Easy’ offers more of the same, if bluesier; ditto, the take on Bland’s ‘Dreamer’. Of the up tempo material the take on King Floyd’s ‘Groove Me’ is outstanding with the band cooking like the musicians on Ms James’ old Chess material and interestingly Ace/Kent have just released two albums of her Chess stuff and it’s great to make comparison.
Through her long career, Etta James has influenced countless artists like Irma Thomas and Janis Joplin – even Adele. I wonder if the new girl wonder will be making music as heartfelt as this in fifty years time… I doubt it.