No one who came out of the '60s Chess Records stable has run as hard, taken as many personal injuries, and gotten back up to be more of a contender than the soul singer Etta James. She hit the R&B charts at age 16, made a living performing where ever she could when soul fell from mass favor, and today, at 60, is still a best-selling blues artist. The key to her endurance is versatility, and that is what shouts out like a choir of hard-knocks survivors on the three-CD set Etta James: The Chess Box
. Though the cuts only cover the period between 1960 and 1976, a small part of her four-and-a-half decade career, the essence of Etta James is all here. On early Chess singles the ballad "My Dearest Darling" and the more raunchy "I Just Want to Make Love to You," James coos and growls like an almost-grown cheetah romping on a bed of strings. There is the inside glance at her personal life on duets with a man she had a huge crush on, Harvey Fuqua
. Though the young love was unrequited, there is an intimacy inherent in their version of "If I Can't Have You," while a smoldering sexuality pervades "Spoonful." The under-appreciated R&B singer Sugar Pie DeSanto
duets with James on the screaming party tune "In the Basement" and the sweet and soulful "Do I Make Myself Clear." Like Ray Charles
, James also has a penchant for turning country music into soul, which is attested to in her version of the Gene Autry
-penned "Be Honest with Me" and other cuts from a 1962 Nashville recording session.
As rock began to outdistance R&B in the mid '60s, James's fluffy material --- tunes like "These Foolish Things" from the syrupy 1962 album Etta James Sings For Lovers
-- gave way to the harder-edged, Southern-fried soul of "I Prefer You" and "Tell Mama." Some of these tunes, in addition to her most memorable ballad of the era, "I'd Rather Go Blind," were actually recorded at Muscle Shoals with the players who assisted Aretha Franklin
in her ascendancy to Queen of Soul. James began covering rock songs in the late '60s, and both the successful and the not-so-great are included in this set. Her version of "Light My Fire" by the Doors
never catches a spark, and the previously unreleased cover of the Righteous Brothers
' "You've Lost that Loving Feeling" is good but not inspired. However when it comes to Randy Newman
material, James is amazing.Her Gabriel Mekler-produced version of Newman's "Let's Burn Down the Cornfields" is definitive. James begins slow and sexy, then builds to a roaring sensuality that not only sets the cornfields afire but torches the entire plantation while she's making love to her man with her voice.
Since the 72 songs on THE CHESS BOX
are placed chronologically, it is obvious that her sound and success were often dependent on producers who weren't sure what to do with the big, bold voice of a woman-child. But James's endurance and talent prevailed over their ignorance, vanity, and experimentation. She shines through even on clunkers like the overwrought "St. Louis Blues," making this three-CD set not only a personal triumph but also a great documentation of the evolution of popular music of the era.