That Etta James stands as one of the greatest female singers of the post-World War 2 era is unarguable, yet she only ever enjoyed one UK hit record and did not trouble the US singles charts after 1978. This meant the accolades that followed her recent death dealt with something more than a string of hits or showbiz earning power. Instead, commentators talked of her in terms of her artistry, the majesty of her voice and the visceral emotions she conjured up no matter what she sang.
When I was asked to write the notes for this reissue of her “Queen Of Soul” album, I was more than thrilled. Here was an LP I had never owned and it came with 13 bonus tracks, many of which I’d not heard. Talk about work being a pleasure. I’ve always listened to a lot of Etta James, but concentrating on a favourite artist’s life story encourages intensive listening. I played the hell out of all the records I could get my hands on, yet I kept returning to her classic Chess sides where she found her many voices and how to employ them across material that ranged from big band standards to the greasiest soul.
I’ve never been able to track down all of Etta’s albums, so I was grateful for Ace’s recent “Who’s Blue?”, “Losers Weepers” and “Call My Name” releases. Across these magnificent discs one gets a sense of just how versatile a vocalist she was, and just how much fabulous material got left as B-sides or album tracks or even went unissued.
Chess must have had much to be confident about with “Queen Of Soul” – its very title implying that the company’s bestselling artist brooked no pretenders. Released in November 1964, its cover portrait suggests an emotional engagement that looks painful. Etta is in fine voice throughout and the album’s tracks – which stem from sessions recorded between late 1962 and late 1964 – represent extremely compelling soul music. Opening tune ‘Bobby Is His Name’ is gorgeous, while her take on Irma Thomas’ ‘I Wish Someone Would Care’ fits her perfectly. Yet “Queen Of Soul” failed to ignite upon release and appears largely forgotten today. Strange for an album that offers up such a potent claim to be the new ruler of the hippest black music form taking shape across the USA, and strange that one packed with so much good music has been overlooked for so long.
Her next album, 1967’s “Call My Name”, also passed unnoticed. By then an old friend of hers – whose career on Columbia had seen her underachieve while Etta reigned – had signed to Atlantic and cut a startling 45 in Muscle Shoals. From then on Aretha Franklin would be acknowledged as the Queen Of Soul and Etta would forever trail in her wake, but she would be back time and again to record great material and wow listeners. But, for now, we have her album “Queen Of Soul” from the time when she was, undoubtedly, the monarch.
By Garth Cartwright