Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Etta James

CURRENT LISTENING: Etta James, The Chess Box.

Etta has to be up there in the sixties soul stratosphere, along with Aretha and Otis.

Since she recorded for the big poppa of all blues labels, Chicago-based Chess Records, you might think that she was an acolyte of the great blues masters. Not so. Spunkily, she once said, “I didn't want to go into that Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf was a little too down-home for me.” Instead, her role model was the idiosyncratic Johnny “Guitar” Watson: “He was so slick, so uptown....and I always wanted to sing like a dude anyway.”

The first thing that pleasantly confounded me about her Chess recordings was Riley Hampton’s arranging, thick with cellos and flutes, not instruments you usually associate with gritty R&B. But they really worked, and without sacrificing an ounce of soul, helped her gain a crossover audience that traditionalist blues artists had hoped for and never achieved.

But Chess Records continued to struggle like other black music labels of the period. Apparently, in order to make his orchestrations sound fat and luscious, but lacking the budget to hire enough violinists, Hampton wrote arrangements that regularly called for double-stopping (where each violinist would be assigned to play two notes simultaneously), resulting in the illusion that Etta was being backed by a large orchestra. Talk about creative problem-solving.

Drug addiction later derailed Etta’s career. Soon after Leonard Chess died, she heard a knock on her apartment door. Expecting eviction, she discovered that he had bought her the apartment, and left her the deed in his will. It marked a turning point in her life.

She’s enjoying a second, rejuvenated career today as a fine jazz singer. Her Billie holiday tribute record, from 1994, is a real peach.