Etta James died today, and I’m listening to my favorite album by her, the spectacular Tell Mama, which Chess put out in 1968. Conventional wisdom states that the great rhythm-and-blues singer never recorded an album as massive as her talents. As usual, such conventional wisdom is grounded in an iota of fact and then turns out to be completely wrong.
As it did with all of its female singers, Chess Records had much trouble placing James. They tried her out on big-band ballads, straight blues, and the uptempo rhythm-and-blues hits with which she had scored in the fifties, like “Dance with Me Henry.” But no matter what the style, she wasn’t generating any hits, though many individual tracks were sinewy and harrowing.
Producer Rick Hall believed in James enough to fly her down to Fame Studios, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a place where soul smashes were being cut every day, it seemed. The idea was to get a rough, smoldering album out of her—very much in the mode of Aretha Franklin, who had recently broken out of a similar rut with churchy soul. The result, Tell Mama, is the only soul-bandwagon record that can stand with Lady Soul’s classics from the period.
The big rhythm-and-blues hit on Tell Mama was the Clarence Carter title track, a compressed explosion of affirmation and generosity. The acknowledged standard is “I’d Rather Go Blind,” in which James takes standard better-dead-than-unloved banalities and exposes them as true. Turn the volume as low as you like; she’ll still overtake everyone in a loud, crowded room. Even the album’s giving songs sound generated by hurt; James sings as if she knows that alleviating someone else’s sorrow won’t lessen her load one bit. R.I.P.