Etta James ‘Five Classic Albums’ 2CD (Avid R&B) 4/5

If ever there was a singer whose back catalogue has been endlessly trawled for ‘best of’ packages, then Etta James is surely a major contender and it is a welcome relief to see these early original albums now paired together in this bargain basement format. Indeed, the pairing of albums captures the early Etta James on Chess, beginning with her debut recording for the label, ‘Miss Etta James’, that dates from 1960. In fact, she began with her debut for the Chess offshoot label Argo. It was indeed Leonard Chess who spotted her crossover potential, and he was keen to embellish her natural blues-inflected vocal sound with lush pop orchestrations in order to market her beyond the traditional R & B market to a wider (read whiter) audience with a more palatable and less raw sound.

An early hit was scored in 1961 with the immortal, ‘At last’, which is definitive James and her 1961 album, ‘Etta James at last’, serves as a de facto greatest hits package, though she would certainly add to the list of immortal songs. Another major hit was, ‘A Sunday kind of love’, while the singer broke barriers with her no holds barred exclamation of carnal desire in, ‘I just want to make love to you’, and it should be stated that in 1961 both the risqué delivery and sassy content broke the era mould.

A second album for Chess from 1961, ‘Second time around’, repeated the winning formula and here Etta James was being marketed as a singer with definite pop potential, even if in reality the album contained re-packaged standards from the 1940’s such as, ‘Don’t cry for me baby’. The album is notable also for a prototype Motown song in, ‘Seventh day fool’, which was actually co-written by Berry Gordy, and in a not dissimilar vein,comes, ‘Fool that I am’. A further couple of albums date from 1962, and the simply titled, ‘Etta James’, was produced by Harvey Fuqua and includes a lovely gospel-infected, ‘Something’s got a hold on me’. In a slightly more classic vein, the second album from 1962, ‘Sings for lovers’, includes songbook standards of the calibre of, ‘These foolish things’, and, ‘Someone to watch over me’, which seem to be clear pitch by Leonard Chess at showcasing James to a wider market beyond the traditional African-American audience, and it proved to be a winning formula. Definitely worth acquiring and, hopefully, more of her Chess back catalogue will be re-issued in this handy format.

Tim Stenhouse