Etta James

S.O.U.L.

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Legendary R&B singer Etta James scored her first hit record in 1955, but it wasn't until 1994 that she won her first Grammy Award after recording the Billie Holiday tribute set Mystery Lady for the boutique label Private Music. The success of Mystery Lady led to a long-term deal with Private Music, and James went on to cut ten albums for the label. S.O.U.L. is a collection that draws ten selections from James' catalog for Private, including a live recording of her signature romantic number, "At Last." Overall, this set is a mixed bag: of the dozens of songs James recorded for the label, it's hard to guess why her slightly misguided cover of the Rolling Stones' "Miss You" was chosen to open the program, and "I Want to Ta Ta You, Baby" isn't likely to be remembered as one of the crowning moments in James' career. But while time and hard living had taken a bit of the shine off her upper register by the '90s, on most of these tracks James sounds good to great, her phrasing is smart and intuitive, her musicians are in the pocket, and she's never less than committed to the material. These aren't the recordings that led Jerry Wexler to call James "the greatest of all modern blues singers," but S.O.U.L. contains enough of her magic to confirm that she still knew just what to do with a song well into her seventies, though if you're looking for a sampler from Etta's latter-day recordings, you're better off with the more thorough and better programmed The Essential Etta James.

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