When I was recently reading a review of Etta James new album The Dreamer online, I was saddened to discover that because of health reasons, this would be the final album she’d release. Etta now seventy-three, has had a long and illustrious career, recording her debut album At Last! fifty years ago in 1961. Since then, she has released over twenty-five albums, releasing them on some of the biggest labels in music. These labels have included Cadet, an imprint of Chess Records, the Chess label itself, Island, Elektra and RCA Victor. I first discovered Etta’s music through the music she recorded for Cadet and Chess, which in my opinion, was the finest music Etta recorded. 

One of these albums was Tell Mama, the second album Etta released on Cadet Records. Released in August 1968, it was Etta’s seventh studio album and became the first album she’d released since 1963 to enter the Billboard 200 reaching number eighty-two. The album fared better in the US R&B Charts, reaching number twenty-one. On the album were Etta’s first top ten and top twenty singles since back in 1963. Both singles had been released in 1967, with the Tell Mama, the title track of the album reaching number ten in the US R&B Charts and number twenty-three in the US Billboard 100. Tell Mama is still Etta’s biggest selling single in the Billboard charts, and is regarded as one of her classics, and among the best songs she has ever recorded. The second single was Security, previously a hit for Otis Redding. When it was released, it reached number eleven in the US R&B Charts and number thirty-five in the US Billboard 100. 

It wasn’t just the record buying public that loved the album, so did critics. They all thought that this was one of Etta’s best ever albums, with tracks like I’d Rather Go Blind, Love of My Man and Watch Dog among the albums highlights. Maybe the change in fortune was down to a change in producer and using some of the best musicians in America at the time. Whereas Etta’s first album for Cadet 1967s Call My Name had been released by Leonard Chess, Tell Mama had been produced by Rick Hall at the Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. This had been Leonard Chess’ idea, and he encouraged Etta to head to Alabama, and let Rick Hall produce the album. Once at the Fame Studios, Rick Hall and a crack team of musicians set about recording Tell Mama.

Once the recording sessions started, Rick Hall started mixing Etta’s voice so it sounded stronger when she hit the high notes. On previous albums, her voice sounds distorted on the higher notes, but not on Tell Mama. On the album, her voice sounds much stronger and clearer when she hits the high notes. Using the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section which included bassist David Hood, drummer Roger Dawkins, guitarist Jimmy Ray Johnson and Barry Beckett and Dewey Oldham on organ. Add to this musicians like trumpeter Gene “Bowlegs” Miller, saxophonist Floyd Newman and pianist George Davis, and Rick Hall had assembled some of the finest musicians available. Together, they provided the musical backdrop on twelve songs which Rick Hall produced. The result was one of Etta James finest ever albums Tell Mama, which I’ll now tell you about.

Tell Mama opens with the title track Tell Mama, the first single released from the album. This gave Etta her most successful single in the US Billboard charts, and from the opening bars, you realize why. A combination of driving rhythm section, guitars and blazing horns open the track before a hugely powerful, sassy vocal from Etta enters. After that, there’s no let up in the power and passion she displays as she almost roars her way through the song. Rick Hall’s production meant that when Etta hit the high notes, there was no distortion in her voice. Throughout the track interplay between the guitars of Jimmy Jay Johnson and Albert Lowe Jr. and bassist David Hood, plus the rasping, braying horns is key to the  success of the track. Similarly, Roger Dawkins drumming drives the track along, as it sits in front of the mix. However, as good as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section were, Etta’s dynamic and energetic vocal steals the show, resulting in a brilliant track.

Over the years, I’ve heard many artists sing I’d Rather Go Blind. Some have been good, some bad, while others have been crimes against music. However, one of my favorite versions has always been Etta’s on Tell Mama. She seems to live the song, bring the lyrics to life unlike many other artists have been able to do. Maybe the combination of such great musicians and a talented producer in Rick Hall helped her, but you get the feeling that if she sung it with a pick-up band she’d still nail the track. A slow and moody combination of guitars, rhythm section accompany Spooner Oldham on Hammond Organ as they accompany Etta. Straight away, she gives a heartfelt and emotive rendition of the lyrics, accompanied by subtle backing vocalists. David Hood’s slow, meandering bass sits at the front of the mix, as Etta gives one of the greatest performances of her career. Etta gets across heartache and despair of the potential loss of her partner, who has been cheating on her. Although he’s strayed, she still loves him, can’t stand to lose him. A combination of an outstanding vocal and slow, thoughtful arrangement combine beautifully, with the result one of the best songs of Etta’s long and illustrious career.

Watch Dog is a fast paced Don Covay penned track that sees the rhythm section, guitars and rasping horns accompany Etta’s swinging vocal. Again, soulful female backing vocalists are cooing and wooing throughout the track, while Etta’s sings about an overprotective, suspicious partner. Later, a soaring guitar solo dances on top of the arrangement, as the rhythm section and rasping horns combine to drive the track along. By the end of the track, you can’t resist Etta’s swinging vocal and the fast and frantic driving arrangement, on what’s a very different track from the previous two.

The tempo drops way down on The Love of My Man a slow, emotive sounding track. A piano, organ, slow thoughtful rhythm section and guitars combine with Etta’s strong vocal. It’s a joyous and grateful Etta, thankful for the love of her man that we hear. Accompanying her are equally joyous female backing vocalists, while chiming guitars, piano and a moody sounding organ combine behind her. Together with the rhythm section they play thoughtfully and subtly, allowing a joyous Etta and her backing vocalists to take centre-stage on this deeply moving track.

I’m Gonna Take What He’s Got is the second Don Covay penned track on Tell Mama. Of the two tracks, I’ve always preferred this track to Watch Dog. Maybe it’s Rick Hall’s slow moody arrangement with a Hammond organ, chiming guitars and rasping horns at its heart that accompany Etta’s vocal. There’s a rawness, as well as anger and frustration, in her vocal as she sings about how badly her man treats her, and regardless of this, she still loves him and can’t give him up. Behind her, the tempo is slow, the arrangement again having a subtly, with horns and drums adding drama and the organ adding emotion. As the track ends, you’re almost willing Etta to realize that her man’s a loser, abuser and cheater, and walk away. This is how realistic her vocal is, that you almost think that the song’s real life. Not many singers could make you think this, but Etta James could.

The final song of side one was The Same Rope a slightly quicker track, that opens with the rhythm section, organ and guitars. They accompany an angry Etta who gives a hugely emotive performance, angry that her lover has cheated on her, warning him that the same thing could happen to him. Meanwhile, rasping horns punctuate the track, and the organ, guitars and rhythm section are key to tracks success. Later, a piano enters, combining well with the rhythm section and horns. Backing vocalists confidently accompany Etta, as the track swings along, with Etta sounding as if she almost hopes the same fate befalls her errant lover. What I’ve always liked about the track is the swaggering way Etta delivers the lyrics, against a sympathetic swinging arrangement.

Side two of the album opens with Security a track Otis Redding co-wrote with Margaret Wessen. A burst of blazing horns opens the track, before Etta’s voice soars. After another burst of horns, Etta’s vocal begins, against a driving, yet punchy backdrop of rasping, swirling horns, driving rhythm section and guitars. Brief but regular bursts of punchy female backing vocalists accompany Etta, as she sings about wanting the security of a relationship. Behind her, Rick Hall’s arrangement stays true to the original song, sounding like something from one of Otis Redding’s own albums. Rick provides the perfect backdrop for Etta’s pleading vocal on this excellent song, written by one of the greats of soul music, and sung by another.

Jimmy Hughes who recorded three albums with Rick Hall at the Fame Studios, wrote Steal Away. I’ve always loved Jimmy’s version, but Etta’s version runs it pretty close. When the track opens, it’s a hugely emotive, pleading Etta we hear, as she sings across a drama drenched arrangement that features Dewey Oldham on piano, a slow, careful and short bursts of rasping horns at its heart. Combine this with Etta’s needy vocal as she pleas for her lover to steal away and meet her, and the result is one of the album’s best tracks. Although most of the success is down to Etta, Dewey Oldham’s piano playing, the rasping horns and producer Rick Hall, all deserve credit for their contributions.

My Mother In Law sees the tempo rise on this quick driving track, with chiming guitars, driving rhythm section, piano and blazing horns combining with Etta’s frustrated vocal. Etta’s fed up and frustrated by her interfering mother-in-law, as she decides it’s either her or me. As she sings, the frustration and near anger in her voice she’s accompanied by another great Rick Hall arrangement. Horns, piano, guitars and rhythm section all play their part in making this such an irresistible track, where Etta’s frustration seems almost realistic. 

Rick Hall wrote Don’t Lose Your Good Thing, which opens with a combination of braying horns, bass and piano, before Etta’s strong and slow vocal enters. Guitars and drums enter, as does a moody sounding Hammond organ. There’s a real Southern Soul sound to the slow arrangement now, as Etta sings how she doesn’t want to lose her man, but if he doesn’t stop she’ll leave him. Behind her, the arrangement has a lovely atmospheric sound, helped by the addition of the Hammond organ and plenty of rasping horns. When this slow, atmospheric  arrangement is combined with the anger, frustration and regret of Etta’s vocal, the result is a moving and passionate slice of the finest Southern Soul.

It Hurts So Much features one of the most emotive and passionate vocal from Etta on Tell Mama. Against a slow, understated arrangement with a piano, gentle organ, guitars thoughtful rhythm section, Etta sings about her love for a man, but he’s married, and unwilling to be unfaithful. The sadness and regret in Etta’s voice is reflected in the slow, spartan arrangement where chiming guitars and rasping horns escape from, adding drama, while the piano and organ add to emotion of the song. This is perfect for Etta’s nearly dramatic, powerful and emotive vocal, allowing it to take centre-stage, and the listener to revel in her pain and regret.

Tell Mama closes with Just A Little Bit, which opens with bursts of rasping horns, before a howl from Etta gets the song underway. While horns rasp, the bass is quick, guitars chime and drums provide the track’s heartbeat, Dewey Oldham’s Hammond organ adds an atmospheric yet melodic sound. Together, they provide a backdrop for Etta’s sassy vocal, as she sings about wanting just a little bit of her man’s loving. Both Etta’s vocal, and the arrangement with rasping horns and the organ key to its success merge magnificently, resulting in a track that combines jazz and soul masterfully. 

Of all the Etta James’ albums I’ve heard over the years, Tell Mama remains my favorite. On Tell Mama, Etta is on irresistible form, delivering each track with a variety of emotions, bringing each one to life brilliantly. The material on the album was some of the strongest Etta had recorded in her career, including Tell Mama, the seminal I’d Rather Go Blind, I’m Gonna Take What He’s Got, Security and Just A Little Bit. These songs were written by some great songwriters, including Don Covay, Jimmy Hughes, Otis Redding and Ellington Jordan and Billy Foster who cowrote the classic I’d Rather Go Blind. Add to the great songs that Etta had available, one of the best producers of the time, Rick Hall, and some hugely talented musicians, and the result was a brilliant album. Not only was it Etta’s biggest selling album, resulting in her highest US chart placing, but it was critically acclaimed upon its release. Since then, many people, myself included believe that Tell Mama was Etta James greatest ever album. For anyone wanting to hear a good introduction to her music, I’d recommend Tell Mama and The Genuine Article, The Best of Etta James as a good introduction to her music. Tell Me Mama was recently remastered and rereleased, and I can thoroughly recommend it, because as well as the album, there are ten bonus tracks, all of which Etta recorded with Rick Hall. One of the best of these tracks is a hugely moving and passionate version of Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, the Chips Moman and Dan Penn classic. So, if having read this review, you want to hear some brilliant music from Etta James, then Tell Mama is well worth buying, because you’ll hear Etta at her very best. Standout Tracks: Tell Mama, I’d Rather Go Blind, Steal Away and Just A Little Bit.


Tell Mama: The Complete Muscle Shoals Sessions

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