Wednesday, November 17, 2010

#85 Etta James-Tell Mama


Artist: Etta James
Album: Tell Mama
Label: Chess
Year: 1968

Etta James, much like Otis Redding, seemed to always be overshadowed by others in their time. Hindsight has done wonders for their careers, but while at the height of their powers, they were overshadowed. Etta always seemed to be in contention with Aretha, and the thing that always seemed to hold her back was the far-too-wide of a variety of ways her voice was handled. She'd done orchestral pieces, gritty R&B, and even straight-up blues, but in 1968, after Aretha recorded at FAME: Muscle Shoals, Leonard Chess sent Etta to follow suit, and it turned out southern soul was the backbone Etta had been missing all along.
Tell Mama was not Etta's first great album. That honor belongs to 1961's At Last!, which apart from its legendary title track, features killer renditions of "Tough Mary" and "All I Could Do Was Cry," among other great tracks. And it's not the first record that really showcases her gritty side. She was recording for Kent Records as early as the mid-1950s, and Etta Rocks The House, a live album from 1964, is one of her best. But Tell Mama, with amazing playing and production all-around, is her most ferocious studio album.
Her first hit was a response to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me Annie," and for the title track, Etta reverses the roles of a man's song and makes it her own (a rendition of "Tell Papa"). Covers of Otis Redding's "Security" and Don Covay songs as well litter the album. The horns, the Telecaster guitar, and Etta's voice really make this album erupt with energy. The feel is unbelievable, and the songs are amazing.
The CD issue features all sorts of excellent bonus tracks from the sessions that highlight that Etta had ample material to draw from for the album's release. It's really a stellar record in every way, without a bum note on it. A triumphant record for a woman that finally got her due.

Tell Mama: The Complete Muscle Shoals Sessions

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