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Holiday Gift Guide Reviews: Etta James and Sarah Vaughan, “Complete Albums Collections”

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Etta James - Complete Private Rock BoxEtta James and Sarah Vaughan: by any and all accounts, two formidable women of song.  Now, these late legends are both receiving the deluxe treatment from Legacy Recordings on two box sets as part of the Complete Albums series.

Though Etta James’ most enduring recordings were made during her sixteen years (1960-1976) at Chess Records, including her oft-imitated but never-topped perennial “At Last,” the former Jamesetta Hawkins recorded for over fifty years in a variety of genres for a variety of labels.  Modern, Warner Bros., Elektra, Island, Fantasy, RCA, Verve: tenures with all of those labels yielded memorable music from the woman dubbed the Matriarch of the Blues. But one of James’ most lasting label affiliations was with Private Music, where she remained for roughly a decade between 1994 and 2003.  At Private, James explored two parallel artistic avenues, recording in both the idioms of jazz and blues/R&B.  With Legacy’s The Complete Private Music Blues, Rock ‘n’ Soul Albums Collection box set (88691 90589 2), a line of demarcation has been drawn between James’ two differing styles explored at the label.  The box collects seven albums in which she brings her life experience to songs by titans of all three named genres: blues (Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson), rock (Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Bob Dylan) and soul (Otis Redding, Al Green), and everything in between.  A future box set will likely collect the remainder of James’ Private recordings including her acclaimed sets of popular and jazz standards.  But this 7-CD box (containing two Grammy Award-winning discs) makes a compelling case that this elder stateswoman of music didn’t lose any of the fire or adventurous spirit that marked her incendiary tenure with Chess.

How to separate Etta James’ turbulent personal life from the music she created?  Indeed, her third Private studio album (and the first included in this box set), 1997’s Love’s Been Rough on Me, has a number of song titles that would apply in an autobiographical sense: not just “Love’s Been Rough on Me” itself, but also “Cry Like a Rainy Day,” “Don’t Touch Me,” “If I Had Any Pride Left at All.”  Even the last album in this set, the “bonus disc” Live from San Francisco (recorded 1981, released 1994), finds Eagles favorite “Take It to the Limit” recast soulfully by a singer who took life to the absolute limits for as long as she possibly could.

The blues form figured prominently even in the titles of these torrid albums: Life, Love and the Blues (a holy trinity if there ever was one for Ms. Etta James), Matriarch of the Blues, Blues to the Bone.  James may have been exorcising her considerable demons in song, but she did so with power, dignity and control.  She even self-produced or co-produced more than half of the albums here.  On the first album in this box to be recorded, the 1981-vintage Live from San Francisco, she imbues that Glenn Frey/Don Henley hit with more fire than the California cowboys likely ever imagined, growling its familiar words.  There’s also the opportunity here to compare that 1981 concert to a 2001 Hollywood gig preserved on Burnin’ Down the House.  With her Roots Band, James covers some of the same songs, bringing another twenty years’ of life experience to Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and Ellington Jordan and Billy Foster’s “I’d Rather Go Blind.”  She also revisits “At Last” in 2001, older and wiser, and with a certain amount of affection.  (She sounds grateful and without judgment when she introduces the standard with a simple “Every time somebody gets married, they say, ‘Sing ‘At Last.’”  The audience applauds when she complies, naturally.)

Etta James BoxThroughout the albums collected on the box, James connects with songs both expected and out of left field.  So comfortable in so many genres, she melds Rodgers and Hart to Al Green in an epic medley from Burnin’ Down the House of the Reverend Al’s “Take Me to the River” and “Love and Happiness” with the venerated Broadway team’s “My Funny Valentine.”  One of the most diverse LPs here, 2000’s Matriarch of the Blues, is also the most rocking.  It brings sassy, brassy southern soul to Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody,” another finely-chosen selection for an artist intimately acquainted with both the devil and the Lord, as the song goes.  In her hands, the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” loses its disco sheen, its famous riff reinterpreted by a smoking horn section and Mick Jagger’s “woo-hoo-hoo” squeal reinvented as a guttural “Whoa-oh-oh.”  Surely the Glimmer Twins were pleased with their heroine’s recording.  Another rock legend, John Fogerty, gets the Etta treatment with her funky take on his “Born on the Bayou.”

In a decidedly less contemporary vein is 2004’s Blues to the Bone, with songs from Willie Dixon, of course, plus Robert Johnson (“Dust My Broom”) Jimmy Reed (“Hush, Hush”), Elmore James (“The Sky is Crying”) and one-time Chess labelmate Howlin’ Wolf (“Smokestack Lightnin’”).  The bands were generally small, tight, and sympathetic to each particular album’s requirements; on Blues to the Bone, the arrangements are stripped-down and no horn section is present.  Somewhere between these two extremes is Life, Love and the Blues (1998), with Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” (here, “Hoochie Coochie Gal”) and “Spoonful” sitting comfortably alongside songs by classic southern soul men including Joe Tex, Brook Benton, William Bell and Al Green.  The most adventurous choice, though, hails from Detroit: Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).”

There’s more on Etta, plus a look at Sarah Vaughan’s Complete Columbia Albums box set, once you hit the jump! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

December 14, 2012 at 10:06