Etta James

Gold

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Because of her blues-based comeback in the '90s, Etta James is usually thought of by the general public -- if she's thought of at all -- as a blues singer, but there's a good deal more to the picture than that, and this well-chosen and stunningly varied two-disc, 36-track anthology provides strong evidence that Etta James has long been one of the best singers of her generation -- in any style. In many ways James resembles a female Ray Charles in her unerring ability to tackle (and sometimes combine) all of the strands of American popular music, from rock & roll to R&B, blues, country, gospel, jazz, and pure pop and soul, while still maintaining a distinct feel and sound that is all her own, and she has done this throughout a five decade career that is astounding for its consistency. This well-chosen compilation covers the whole span of that career, beginning with 1955's "Dance with Me Henry" (an answer song to Hank Ballard's "Roll with Me Annie") and ending with her amazing re-imagining of Elmore James' "The Sky Is Crying" from 2004. In between this set shows off the range of this impressive artist, who tackles everything from orchestral pop (her signature "At Last" from 1960), torch songs ("Don't Cry Baby" from 1961), gospel ("Something's Got a Hold on Me" from 1962), and heart-wrenching soul ("Tell Mama" and "I'd Rather Go Blind," both from 1967) to the unclassifiable (Randy Newman's gothic and lusty "Let's Burn Down the Cornfield" from 1974). Most of James' key and signature tracks are included, and this set compares favorably with 1993's The Essential Etta James from MCA/Chess in that regard. Several of James' original albums are classics, but listeners should particularly check out 1961's At Last! from Chess Records (it was actually first released on the Argo subsidiary) and 2004's blues masterpiece Blues to the Bone from RCA.

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