ETTA JAMES-AT LAST!
ETTA JAMES-AT LAST!
As someone who has always loved soul music, I’ve long been a fan of Etta James music. Miss Peaches had one of the most recognizable, charismatic and soulful voices you’ll ever have privilege of hearing. From 1954, until her final album The Dreamer, released in November 2011, her music touched the hearts of millions of people. Like many people, over the years, I’ve collected so many of Etta’s albums, with her Chess era albums the ones I’ve loved most of all. Previously, I’ve written reviews of two of these albums 1966s Call My Name and 1968s Tell Mama, two of my favorite albums. However, as a tribute to Etta James who passed away on January 20 2012, I thought I’d revisit her debut album At Last! which features a quartet of her best known tracks, A Sunday Kind of Love, I Just Want To Make Love To You, At Last and Stormy Weather. At Last! was the first album in a career that lasted fifty-eight years and was the first of twenty-nine studios Etta would record. However, the first of these albums was recorded fifty-two years ago, in 1960, and would become At Last!
Back in 1960, between January and October of 1960, Etta James headed into the recording studio to record what was her debut album. The songs chosen for what would become At Last!, were a combination of R&B, jazz and blues standards. This included a trio tracks that would become almost synonymous with Etta A Sunday Kind of Love, I Just Want To Make Love To You and Stormy Weather. With an orchestra arranged and conducted by Riley Hampton, and Phil and Leonard Chess producing the album, ten tracks in total were recorded. Now that At Last! was recorded, the album was scheduled for release in 1961.
On At Last’s release on Argo Records, a subsidiary of Chess Records in 1961, the album was well received by critics, who were hugely impressed by Etta’s ability to handle a variety of songs, with everything from R&B and blues, to jazz and pop. At Last! reached number sixty-eight in the US Billboard 100, while four singles were released from the album. The first two, All I Could Do Was Cry and My Dearest Darling preceded At Last’s release. All I Could Do Was Cry reached number thirty-three in the US Billboard 100 and number two in the US R&B Charts, while My Dearest Darling reached number thirty-four in the US Billboard 100 and number five in the US R&B Charts. in 1961, the title track At Last! was released as a single reaching number forty-seven in the US Billboard 100 and number two in the US R&B Charts. Trust In Me was the fourth and final single released from At Last!, reaching number thirty in the US Billboard 100 and number four in the US R&B Charts. Amazingly, neither of A Sunday Kind of Love, I Just Want To Make Love To You and Stormy Weather were released as a single. Looking back, this seems strange, given how they’ve become some of Etta’s best known and best loved tracks. However, maybe this was a reflection of the quality of music in At Last!. If this is the case, then At Last! will prove to be a stunning album, which I’ll now tell you about.
At Last! opens with Anything To Say You’re Mine, written by Sonny Thompson. With a full orchestra accompanying her, Etta’s voice is full of sadness and hope, as she longs to here from the man she loves. Strings play a part in the hugely sad arrangement, while a bass, guitar and piano all play minor parts. What’s noticeable about the arrangement is its lovely old-fashioned sound, that’s very different from arrangements on the other Etta James albums I’ve reviewed. Considering Call My Name and Tell were recorded in 1966 and 1968 respectively, there’s a huge change in Etta’s music. However, it’s Etta’s powerful and emotive voice that steals the show, bringing out the pain and heartache in the song’s lyrics.
Rasping horns and shimmering strings open My Dearest Darling, before Etta’s thoughtful vocal enters. She’s accompanied by the rhythm section enter, her voice enveloped in swathes of strings, while brief bursts of horns punctuate the arrangement. As the song progresses, Etta’s vocal grows in power and passion, displaying her wide vocal range. Sometimes, the sound almost distorts, which is through no fault of Etta’s, more the equipment that was being used. This track demonstrates perfectly both the power and passion that that would become trademarks of Etta’s music.
Trust In Me has a much more gentle sound, with a piano, subtle rhythm section and quivering strings combining with Etta’s vocal. Etta pleads with her man to trust, as her voice grows stronger. Meanwhile, the arrangement has a lovely jazzy sound, just meandering along, while Etta’s voice grows in strength, power and emotion as the song heads to its impressive climax.
One of the best known tracks on At Last! is A Sunday Kind of Love. Etta sings slowly and thoughtfully, her voice full of loneliness and longing. Meanwhile a standup bass, guitar, drums and lush strings accompany her. As Etta sings of her loneliness, and longing for someone to love, her delivery is so impassioned that you almost believe that this song is personal for her. Combined with that beautiful, slow and string laden arrangement, this is easily one of the album’s highlights, and became a song synonymous with Miss Peaches.
Closing Side One of At Last! is Tough Mary, a Lorenzo Manley song. It has a very different almost poppy sound, probably to give Etta crossover appeal in the pop charts. With a quick tempo, backing vocalists accompany Etta’s powerful, roaring vocal, while the rhythm section drive the track along. A flute, and later, blazing saxophone augment the quick-fire, populist arrangement. This track sounds out of place on the album, and although it’s a decent enough track seems a strange choice for Etta’s debut album.
Opening Side Two is a much better, classic Etta James’ track, which is instantly recognizable, I Just Want To Make Love To You, written by Willie Dixon. With those familiar rasping horns, opening the swinging arrangement, the rhythm section, piano and swirling, sweeping strings accompany a sassy, confident and powerful vocal from Etta. Her voice soars, laden with power, passion and emotion. When the rasping horn solo enters, things just get even better, as the arrangement swings along brilliantly, resulting in a true classic from Etta. During this track, she delivered and outstanding, sassy, strutting vocal, and was fortunate to have such an excellent arrangement accompanying her. Even fifty-one years later, the track is a true, timeless classic.
Of the four singles released from the album, the title track, At Last is easily the best. Like the previous track, it’s one of Etta’s great track. Against a jazz tinged arrangement where a standup bass and slow sweeping strings play important parts, Etta’s voice veers between a tenderness and an impassioned, powerful style, as she sings about meeting someone to love. It’s a quite beautiful track, with a slow, subtle and gorgeous arrangement, that’s from another era. However, it still sounds stunning, and has aged gracefully, much like Etta did.
All I Could Do Is Cry was the first single released from At Last! and is a slow, sad song. With the rhythm section, woodwind and shivering strings accompanying Etta, her voice is full of sadness and regret, the man she loved have married another woman. Here, backing vocalists accompany Etta, adding to the sense of sadness in the song. Later, the rhythm section inject some drama into the arrangement, as Etta’s voice soars full of sadness and loneliness. Like so many other tracks on the album, Etta can bring the lyrics to life, making you believe in the story behind the lyrics. Not many singers have ability to do this, but Etta could.
The last of the quartet of tracks synonymous with Etta is Stormy Weather, written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. With a shuffling beat, where the rhythm section and sad sounding strings combine, Etta’s vocal is tinged with sadness and regret at the break-up of her relationship, and the loss of her partner. While the arrangement meanders along, a piano plays its part in the sad arrangement, while Etta delivers one of her most emotive, yet beautiful vocals, where a combination of sadness, regret and power result in another classic track.
Closing At Last! is another track with a poppy sound, Girl of My Dreams. With piano, rhythm section and backing vocalists accompanying her, Etta gives an impassioned delivery of the lyrics. Her vocal is a combination of passion and power, delivered against an arrangement where piano and backing vocalists play important roles in the arrangement. Like the other tracks on the album, Etta throws herself into the song, even though it’s not one of the album’s highlights, and the result is a good, but not great song. There’s nothing wrong with Etta’s vocal, it’s just the song isn’t as good as others on the album.
At Last! was a great debut album for Etta James, full of quality songs, some of which would become synonymous with Etta. Her voice displays a combination of emotion, passion and power. During each song, she almost seems to have lived the lyrics, getting across the heartache and pain, loneliness and longing. This is something she’d do throughout her career, bring a song alive with a credible and believable interpretation of its lyrics. On At Last!, Etta didn’t choose the material, instead the record company chose each of the ten songs. That’s why two of the songs Tough Mary and Girl of My Dreams don’t really suit Etta’s voice or style. Chess were trying to give Etta popular appeal, which in a way worked, given the relative success of the four singles. Although At Last! was only recorded in 1960, by the time Call my Name was released in 1966, there was a huge change not only in Etta’s music, but music itself. Out were orchestrated albums like At Last!, in was a very different Southern Soul style, with Rick Hall and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section accompanying Etta. This demonstrates how Etta’s music was constantly changing and evolving. Over twenty-nine studio albums, Etta honed and refined her sound, becoming one of the most popular and celebrated soul singers. Not only did she sing soul, but could handle jazz, blues and even funk music. Her talent new no bounds and was a hugely versatile and talented singer. Even until just a few months before her untimely death, Etta was recording music, with The Dreamer what would be her final album, released in November 2011. After this, Etta announced her retirement from music. Tragically, even then, Etta was in poor health, and she didn’t get either the chance or time to enjoy her retirement. Instead, she died on January 20 2012, aged seventy-four. Her loss is a huge loss to music, and her many millions of fans mourn her loss. However, she leaves behind a wonderful legacy, her music. From her debut album At Last!, to her final album The Dreamer, this is music that we can all enjoy, including future generations, who like this generation and the previous one, will love the music of the woman they called Miss Peaches. Standout Tracks: A Sunday Kind of Love, I Just Want To Make Love To You, At Last! and Stormy Weather.
ETTA JAMES-AT LAST!