Etta James, |
When professor James Earle Hines took 5-year-old gospel prodigy Jamesetta Hawkins under his wing at the Los Angeles Baptist Church choir, the World Trade Center wouldn't even be conceived for nearly three decades and it would be half a century before the towers came roaring unforgettably down. Even Johnny Otis wouldn't know Jamesetta's name for another nine years, when he became so enamored of the 14-year old's soon-to-be hit, "Roll with Me Henry," that he had her record the song with he and his band. The song topped 1955's R&B charts, Otis inverted her first name to create the stage presence that would come to be known as Etta James, and the rest is history.
In the years since Ms. Hawkins blossomed into the self-proclaimed "Matriarch of the Blues," many epochs, both personal and national, have drifted in and out of her life. Tirelessly recording her way out of a long bout with drug addiction, Etta's musical persona underwent several incarnations. From '50s doo-wop to '60s soul to '70s rock, funk and disco, Etta James reemerged in 1988 with the soulful Seven Year Itch on Island Records. A series of mixed albums for various labels followed, including Elektra's The Right Time, produced by Jerry Wexler in 1992.
Matriarch of the Blues in 2000 saw James returning to form and command with a snarling collection of R&B rockers and ballads, covering everyone from Ray Charles to the Rolling Stones. Among the album's standouts was an invigorated rendition of Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody," a preachy tune from Dylan's born-again years that served as the perfect invitation for James to revisit the days of the L.A. Baptist Church choir. The album foreshadowed things to come, with sons Danto and Sametto lending their hands to Etta's rediscovered disposition.
With the drum, bass and percussion work of Danto and Sametto at her side again, Etta James offers the self-produced Let's Roll, titled in tribute to 9/11 hero Todd Beamer, a passenger on Flight 93 that day who, after issuing those final words, reportedly brought the plane down before it reached some more disastrous destination.
"Over the years, I've sung jazz and blues and pop but I'm really a rock and roller at heart," James says of her latest release. The woman's not kidding. As Let's Roll explodes into the opening "Somebody to Love," one of two Delbert McClinton tunes featured on the album, Etta seems poised to replace Mick Jagger as the Rolling Stones' leading voice and tongue. Known for wild stage antics verging on the obscene during live performances, such a shift in gears would likely suit James just fine.
Guitarists Bobby Murray and Josh Sklain of James's "Roots Band" sizzle throughout, rivaling Robert Quine and Fernando Saunders of Lou Reed's famously blistering Blue Mask days. Singeing through standout rockers like the opening and immediately catchy "Somebody to Love," the ruggedly bluesy "The Blues is My Business" and the rollicking, textured "Old Weakness," Murray and Sklain slip unexpectedly into searing jams, bursting out of nowhere on the atmospheric ballad, "On the 7th Day." "On the seventh day, God made the blues," James intones.
Time and trouble have entrenched themselves into James's voice, deepening it into the kind of pathos-ridden holler that lends itself perfectly to the album's onslaught of emotionally beleaguered lyrics. It is a lot to say that James, after all this time and struggle, can still approach the triumph of her trademark "At Last," her monumental 1961 soul hit, but throughout Let's Roll, James revisits themes of passion and consequence with the unmistakable sincerity borne of so many wounds. "Passion will burn, burn like gasoline," James sings in her robust, embattled croon on "Please, No More," the album's most wrenching ballad:
We start a fight
While James's penchant for balladry endures, age has also proven unsuccessful in subduing her capacity for ripping into a tune. The uproarious "Strongest Weakness" sounds like some early '80s Eurythmics power ballad, minus the weird hair and synthesizer. One of the album's many fine pieces of production, "Strongest Weakness" illustrates the artful minimalism that allows each song to speak for itself.
With many artists returning to the roots of rock and blues these days -- John Mellencamp's folkish Trouble No More, Van Morrison's R&B-laden Down the Road and Richard Thompson's abandonment of recent, slicker albums in favor of his new, stripped-bare Old Kit Bag, to name a few -- it seems that Norah Jones's appealingly understated Come Away With Me was more of a barometer of the contemporary listener's appetite than a one-time fluke. Etta James's resurgence, then, comes at precisely the right moment. Let's Roll's unremittingly raw approach seems just the thing the people want.
But while the aforementioned artists strain to capture those traditional sounds lurking vaguely beneath the surface of their musical achievements, Etta James is merely unleashing the ghosts that have inhabited her voice since the first day she stepped into that L.A. choir. This is no return to roots; these are the roots, in all their simple luster.
- Rambles, written