Etta James


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Perhaps the most amazing thing about the singing of Etta James is not her versatility -- she has tackled and excelled in gospel, blues, R&B, soul, rock, jazz and pure pop -- but the way her singing stays unmistakably the same in all genres, always conveying strength, emotional honesty, and a subtly nuanced streak of defiant pride that allows her to make any song, no matter how strongly it might be associated with another artist, completely her own. This collection places her in the realm of jazz, compiling a dozen standards she recorded between 1960 and 1970 for the Argo and Chess imprints. Each of these sides features orchestral string and horn arrangements that give off the illusion of smooth mellowness, but it is only an illusion, because James brings all of her vocal guns to the table, and she is as taut as a garrote wire in her phrasing and every bit as sure of the outcome, approaching jazz with the same deep soul fervor she brings to everything she sings. Her take on Harold Arlen's "Stormy Weather" is a case in point. Lena Horne's signature version of the song is full of a languid and haunting resignation, but James tackles it with the defiance of a person used to removing all obstacles from her path and it becomes a persistent hymn to personal survival. Same song. Same lyrics. Different result. Or take James' rendition of the jazz standard "Misty." She fills it with barely restrained gospel fervor, turning its ethereal center inside out and giving the song a kind of stubborn sturdiness that is startling. Remarkably, she always sounds like herself, even when bathed in a backdrop of lush strings and calculated horns. This set doesn't prove that James is a jazz singer so much as it proves that James can sing jazz if and when she chooses to do so. No surprise there. She is, after all, Etta James. And thank God she is.

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