To the hardcore fan of 1950s blues, R&B, and soul, Etta James can be vexing. To anyone following the news lately, her calling out of Beyonce for singing “At Last” at an Obama inaugural ball was completely annoying–especially since Beyonce probably did more to increase awareness of the great soul singer among today’s pop fans through her depiction of James in the Chess Records movie Cadillac Records.
Just to get the obvious comparisons out of the way, here’s Etta:
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Clearly both are gifted singers, one a currently popular diva and the other a well-traveled soul singer with more breadth, depth, experience and nuance than any current diva will likely ever have. In fact, some people could argue that James blazed a path through the music industry so the Beyonces of today could be successful. If we were talking baseball, Beyonce might be Grady Sizemore–who might some day be an all-time great–but Etta James is Roger Maris. Or Frank Robinson. Or Reggie Jackson.
But the vexing part about Etta James’ recorded output is along the lines of Jackie Wilson, Mr. Excitement! While the voice is supremely powerful, the talent over the top, and the listening at times quite pleasurable, because of the times (she was competing against the likes of Pat Boone on the charts along with Gene Pitney and bubblegum pop) she recorded a fair amount of cheesy stuff during her salad days on Chess Records. For every soul-belting performance like “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” that stands up to the hottest of Ray Charles’ catalog–or every smokin’ jazz ballad rendition along the lines of “Stormy Weather”–there’s a freaking cheeseburger of a track like “Bobby Is His Name” that, even in rabid soul fans, provokes dry heaves.
Wilson was the same deal: The pipes were maybe the best of the soul genre–or at least in the same ballpark as Otis, Sam Cooke, and Marvin Gaye–but so much of his stuff is melancholy, slow, bland crap that Mr. Excitement! came across as Mr. Eeyore between “Reet Petite” and “Your Love (Keeps Lifting Me Higher),” the white-hot singles that bookended his career.
So to set the record straight, yes, Etta was great. But get her Chess Box or any otherÁ‚ compilations at the record store, and you might be a little disappointed, especially if it’s diluted by some of the fluffier fluff that even Beyonce wouldn’t touch. Even if it were to guarantee her another top 10 hit, because her street cred would wither and deflate and there would be no next record.