Archive for January 2012
Every year around this time, the subscription to the online Wall Street Journal comes around and I send money that winds up in one of the infinite number of bank accounts controlled by one of the worst men in media. Each year the decision gets harder — the A-heds get shorter and less surprising, the wall between the news and opinion operations gets knocked down a bit more, and the paper continues to let its focus on financial journalism go fuzzy — but in the end I renew my subscription. Even in its reduced state, the paper offers some strong journalism, particularly in those occasional areas where the Murdochs don’t have glaring interests or conflicts of interest. But each year I have less trouble imagining a world in which I don’t need the WSJ to get my job done. Maybe next year?
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.