Released in 1976, “Etta Is Betta Than Evvah!” was the final album of Etta James’ tumultuous 16-year tenure at Chess Records. The album is issued here on CD for the first time, together with 10 bonus titles from the mid-70s.
The self-produced opener, ‘Woman (Shake Your Booty)’, is a funky rewrite of a song Etta had recorded, as ‘W.O.M.A.N’, for Modern in 1955 and again for Chess in 1971. Etta’s road band, led by guitarist Brian Ray, backed her on the track. Two other titles on the LP, ‘Only A Fool’ and Randy Newman’s ‘Leave Your Hat On’, had been released previously on 1973’s “Etta James” set, produced by Gabriel Mekler, celebrated for his work with Steppenwolf, Janis Joplin and others.
By 1976 Chess Records had been purchased by All Platinum, at whose New Jersey studio the bulk of “Etta Is Betta Than Evvah!” was recorded with former Motown baritone sax hero Mike Terry producing. The players on the sessions were the All Platinum house band, otherwise known as funk/disco hitmakers the Rimshots. ‘Little Bit Of Love’ and ‘I’ve Been A Fool’ were penned by Freddie Beckmeier, the bass player with Etta’s own band. The remainder of the album comprised well-chosen covers of Ann Peebles’ ‘A Love Vibration’, ‘Groove Me’ (King Floyd), ‘Blinded By Love’ (Johnny Winter), ‘Jump Into Love’ (Rufus) and ‘Ain’t No Pity In The Naked City’ (Pat Lundy).
None of the tracks Etta recorded in Philadelphia in 1973 were released at the time but a few have surfaced in recent years, among them her revival of ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’, the first of our bonus selections.
Next up are three more tracks from the “Etta James” album. Written by Tracy Nelson, who recorded the song with her group Mother Earth in 1968, and featuring a string arrangement by the great Jimmie Haskell, ‘Down So Low’ was described by Etta in her autobiography as “the hardest song I ever tried to sing in my life”. Haskell also supplied the edgy string lines on ‘All The Way Down’. ‘God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)’ was one of three Randy Newman songs on the album.
Etta’s 1974 LP, “Come A Little Closer”, is the source of the next five bonus selections. Six songs on the LP, including the title track and the wordless ‘Feeling Uneasy’, were co-written by Gabriel Mekler, who likely also influenced Etta to cut Steppenwolf’s ‘Power Play’. Mekler had plans to make a television film about Bessie Smith with Etta in the lead role. The project never materialised but did yield her Grammy-nominated recording of ‘St. Louis Blues’. Confirming her affinity with the songs of Randy Newman, Etta wrote, “The song I loved singing most, though, was ‘Let’s Burn Down The Cornfield’.”
The final bonus track is a version of Tom Jans’ yearning country ballad ‘Lovin’ Arms’, the only recording ever to be released from Etta’s her shelved 1974 sessions with producer Jerry Wexler.
By Mick Patrick