A music review
By Stephani Maari Booker
Like many people who weren’t even born during that time, I’m most familiar with the late music legend Etta James through her 1961 classic “At Last.” She had a long string of hits on the R&B/soul chart starting in the mid-1950s (with her biggest hit period in the ’60s) and ending in the late 1970s while hitting the pop chart occasionally as well.
I only know a handful of James’ hits as they were sung by James, including “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” and “You Can Leave Your Hat On” — many of the songs she recorded were covered by other artists, including Janis Joplin (“Tell Mama”) and Joe Cocker (“You Can Leave Your Hat On”).
The 2008 film about Etta James’ 1960s record label Chess Records, Cadillac Records, and then her death this year have renewed interest in the great singer’s career and music, which has probably led to the July 24 release of Etta James: Live at Montreux 1975-1993 by Eagle Rock Entertainment. The CD is a collection of songs from four different performances by James at the Montreux Jazz Festival, the famed multi-artist, multi-genre (despite its name) showcase held yearly since 1967 in Switzerland.
The track selection is lopsided when it comes to how many songs are from which Etta James performances: More than half the tracks are from her 1993 show, three are from 1975 and one each from 1977 and 1989.
The press release that came with the CD says that these are “the best performances from the 18 years of [James’] association with the festival when she was at her absolute peak.” I’m sure the music critics and most fans consider the 1960s to be the peak of James’ recording career, though live performances sustained her long past that period.
Chemical dependency, bad relationships, legal problems and illnesses hounded James throughout her life — her most recent treatment for painkiller addiction was in 2010 — and these troubles changed her sound over the years as well. In the 1977 performance, she does a medley of “At Last” with two other songs from the At Last album, “Trust in Me” and “A Sunday Kind of Love.” The down-home yet honey-sweet sound of the original recordings from the early ’60s are changed into bluesy, roaring, rough belters.
James’ version of the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself” reveal the possible influence of her personal issues — specifically the chemical abuse — on her performance in a different way: After singing the first verse and chorus, she misses the beginning of the second verse that starts “If you walk around thinking that the world owes you something ’cause you’re here…,” skipping to “Talking ’bout the president won’t stop air pollution…,” and then repeats the part of the first verse that starts “If you don’t give a heck about the man with a Bible in his hand.”
Actually, James didn’t say “heck” in that verse like the Staple Singers did: She said “a good g*dd*mn.” Swear words and raunchiness season many of the songs on this CD, including “W.O.M.A.N.” and “Dust My Broom.” Her blowzy, rough-and-ready attitude and foul mouth reminds me of one of my favorite classic soul singers, the wild and bawdy Millie Jackson.
If I were considering buying this CD, I would have rather had a more varied selection of James’ many Montreux Jazz Festival performances (including a full-length version of “At Last” versus a medley) from different years, but her big voice and huge attitude, as well as good musicians backing her up, make Live at Montreux 1975-1993 an enjoyable listen, especially for someone like me who likes her blues and old-school soul bodacious and bawdy.
Just before I received the Etta James CD, I was sent Loving You More: In the Spirit of Etta James, the newest album by Leela James. The Generation-Y soul singer (she’s not yet 30) took her show-biz alias surname from Etta James, supposedly because people told her when she was younger that she sounded like the icon.
To me, Leela James sounds more like a cross between Betty Wright and Mavis Staples. I love both those singing greats, so I like Leela James a lot; and I’ve followed her career through the four albums and one EP she’s had out since 2005. I’ve heard all of her first album, A Change Is Gonna Come, her EP, Live in New Orleans, and a good chunk of her second album, the all-covers Let’s Do It Again. I’ve only heard a couple of tracks from her third album, the Stax release My Soul, but I liked both songs.
Loving You More: In the Spirit of Etta James is Leela James’ second album with the independent label Shanachie (home of other modern soul stalwarts such as Syleena Johnson and Kindred the Family Soul) and also her second album of mostly or all covers. Except for two tracks, all the songs on Loving You More were previously recorded by Etta James.
There are some expected covers, such as “At Last” of course (done as a duet with Shannon Sanders, one of the album’s producers) and “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.” However, there are also lesser known songs from the elder James’ catalog, such as “I Want to Ta-Ta You Baby,” a song I previously only knew from the late funkster Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
What’s unexpected is that the sound on all the tracks are not retro or an attempt to recreate Etta James’ 1960s sound at all. All the songs are rearranged with modern rhythms with a little touch of old-school soul. There’s even some hip-hop style beats and sampling thrown in: “Damn Your Eyes,” for example, grooves with the beat of Prince’s “Erotic City.”
The creative music backing Loving You More is a relief because if I want to hear old records, I can play old records. Leela James takes the old and makes it new; that’s the way to respect the old school sound — not trying to reproduce it note for note like too many young artists try to do today. Leela James has been guilty of that crime in the past sometimes, but not this time.
On top of the great classic soul songs and the fresh musical arrangements, Leela James does some of the best singing I’ve heard her do on any studio record. She stretches her low groan of a voice to clear, exuberant highs on “It Hurts Me So Much,” a favorite track on this album. Overall, her voice is rich, rangy and truly soulful and expressive — she doesn’t just have the technique down; she has the emotion to back it up.
My favorite recording from Leela James is her live EP (available as a download from cduniverse.com), but Loving You More is now definitely second on my list.
For more information about Etta James: Live at Montreux 1975-1993, go to www.eagle-rock.com. To learn more about Leela James, go to www.leelajames.com.
A video of Leela James talking about her song and the concept of “Old School Kind Of Love” : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHIy4N6WmJ4
Stephani Booker welcomes reader responses to [email protected]