To say Etta James has had an eventful life is a classic understatement. Born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938 to a teenage mother, her childhood defined “pillar to post”. Adulthood came early to her and it was soon dominated by drug addiction, petty crime, jail sentences and abusive relationships. But maybe most dramatically, Ms. James also became involved in a notorious Mexican baby-buying scandal. Through all this she managed to make quite remarkable music – most notably during her tenure with the Chess label.
Over the years reissue labels have pushed out countless Chess anthologies covering all the lady’s hits and every home should have at least one but this new 24 track retrospective is different. The compiler (Mick Patrick) has eschewed the hits in favour of eclectic B sides and album tracks – 18 of which appear on CD for the very first time. You also get one cut that’s lain in the vaults since 1964. It’s a Billy Davis production called ‘Can’t Shake It’ and it’s a fabulous example of the Chicago uptown sound and it’ll mightily please soul collectors of all hues. Other great, true soul cuts include ‘Take Out Some Insurance’ and ‘(I Don’t Need Nobody To Tell Me) How To Treat My Man’ whose intro borrows rather a lot from the Impressions’ ‘You Must Believe Me’.
Etta, of course, could also “do the blues” and here there are a couple of Willie Dixon stormers – ‘Nobody But You’ and ‘Fire’. ‘It Could Happen To You’ and ‘I Worry About You’ are different again – smooth and jazzy, while ‘Sweet Memories’ and ‘Look Who’s Blue’ are great examples of country-soul. Any of the above mentioned (indeed all the album’s tracks) wouldn’t be out of place on a ‘Greatest Hits’ package. It’s only the statistics that has kept them off such sets – so, assuming you have the requisite hits package, this collection will prove the perfect complement and it’s a wonderful tribute to a true soul icon.