Etta James

Only a Fool

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Etta James' third album after the Muscle Shoals tour de force of Tell Mama presents a genius makeover to attract white rock fans who had been left awestruck by Janis Joplin. Way before she tore up the audience at Monterey Pop,Joplin had been sneaking into quite a few of her rehearsals , as James remembers fondly in her semi-autobiography Rage to Survive. Getting introduced to her famous admirer and being paid respect for being a source of inspiration, James found it easier to accept the ideas of Gabriel Mekler, producer of Kozmik Blues Band-era Joplin. Only a Fool came together in a turbulent period. Ongoing struggles with a severe heroine addiction had plunged her and then husband Artis Mills into a Bonnie & Clyde lifestyle of drug dealing, forging checks, and driving around in a stolen Cadillac donated by one Sly Stone. All this came to a sudden halt with a drug bust in Texas. Before entering some serious rehab, James took a detour to New York to work as desk clerk for Chess in between recording the first of two Mekler produced albums. His most important achievement in James' words was steering clear from the heavy horns and weepy strings of preceding albums. A mixture of funk and blues-rock, the new direction turned out dark and brooding. Movie-like opening track "All the Way Down" perfectly fit the singer's own down-and-out experiences and turned out to be her last to hit the R&B singles chart. James identified so much with the song the producer wrote her a sequel in "Out on the Street Again" for follow-up album Come a Little Closer. Elsewhere, the suggestion by Mekler to use songs by Randy Newman was warmly welcomed by the singer. Taken very much with the lyrics of "Sail Away" and turning "(You Can) Leave Your Hat On" into an FM radio favorite, James hair-raisingly sarcastic interpretation of "God's Song" gloriously outshone the other two: "she" turned out to be black and female after all. However rewarding the choice of Newman might have been, the real standout is the singer's earth-shattering take on Tracy Nelson's "Down So Low." The reinvented James went over well with the public. The album garnered good sales and was even nominated for an Emmy Award. Two songs -- the title track and "Leave Your Hat On" -- would resurface in different versions on 1976's Etta Is Betta Than Evah!.

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