With the huge rise in interconnectivity brought about by our friend the Internet, an increasing amount of clearance is being set aside in our precious headspace for the momentary icons of Western popular consciousness. Lately, the kids at school won’t stop going on about a guy called John Cena – a wrestler who inadvertently spawned an internet meme. Now, thanks to a lot of mindless and wanton repetition, his name has – however tenuously and regrettably – entered into my cultural frame of reference.
There are other dubious ‘VIPs’ – Kim Kardashian and the like – who gain more of a foothold due to the constant hype and scandal concerning them assailing us from all angles. I’ll admit I’m not a fan of Adele but I’ll give her her dues: you can’t argue that most of the attention she garners stems from her actual talent which is somewhat of a rarity in our celebrity saturated media.
Back in the 1940s and 50s, if you rose to prominence in show business, there was usually a valid reason behind it. Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday were among the first black female singers of this era to attain stardom, names that have only grown in reverence over time. If you haven’t actually heard of them, then listen to the delicate, articulate tones of Fitzgerald or the gravelly fragility of Holiday and perhaps some dim, long-forgotten, past association will be sparked… even if it happens to be as vague as my link to John Cena! Undeniably, such was the talent and influence of these women that they still inhabit a special place in our collective cultural subconscious.
By the time the Swinging Sixties swung in, it was R&B and soul that were wooing the American public’s attention. Arethra Franklin and Dionne Warwick were the most successful female singers to emerge during this period. The spotlight also fell on a certain Jamesetta Hawkins aka Etta James. And while Franklin and Warwick may have churned out more certifiable hits, it can’t be denied that James matched them in terms of raw talent and the extent of her influence. If you haven’t heard her name, you’ll know her voice from that raunchy 1996 Coke advert, the 2011 hit ‘Levels’ by Avicii or the more recent FIFA 2016 advert – mediums that have ensured some snippets of James’ voice at least have been spliced into your memory. Countless artists have also been moulded by her style. Adele herself has revealed that it was James who inspired her to start writing her own songs.
Released near the beginning of her career while in her early twenties, ‘At Last!’ stands as the most powerful distillation of James’ singing prowess. There’s an apt quote from James that neatly sums up her style: ‘Vocal variety – that’s what I learned at the tender age of five – vocal fire. Sing like your life depends on it.’ Vocal variety and vocal fire. There’s plenty of that on offer here as James effortlessly instils passion onto a collection of rasping blues, soulful jazz and vigorous R&B numbers.
‘Anything To Say You’re Mine’ is a wonderful opener. Right from the off, James’ yearning ‘huhs’ cut straight through you, oozing heartache. James was regarded as a superb interpreter of a song’s emotive content. This ballad about a lover left in the lurch really does make the hairs stand up.
At times, on ‘My Dearest Darling,’ James’ voice growls with giddy joy in anticipation of committing herself to her flame. However, there’s still a tone of uncertainty: ‘I pray your answer’s yes.’ ‘Trust in Me’ begins tenderly until James bawls an impassioned accusation sure to send a shiver down your spine: ‘Why don’t you, you trust me?’ Again that classic theme of unrequited love is evident, James bristling with pain that her faith isn’t being reciprocated.
‘A Sunday Kind Of Love’ is a beautiful tune that finds James lamenting her loneliness and wishing for ‘a love to last past Saturday night.’ The arrangement is gentle and slight, lending a pleasant, lazy, Sunday morning feel to her longing.
A bit of light relief next on the sassy ‘Tough Mary,’ James declaring her preference for diamonds: ‘Don’t bring me flowers / Don’t bring me the sea / Just bring me diamonds / That’ll suit me fine.’ The sizzling ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ is a fine exhibition of James’ vocal strength – from the way she ardently snarls out ‘I don’t want you’ to how she seductively purrs ‘make love to you,’ her voice is bewitching. If she doesn’t get your pulse racing just a bit on this, you’re dead!
Next comes the title track and James’ signature song. Her words here palpably drip with relief and elation now that the love she has desperately been yearning for early in the album has found her, ‘My lonely days are over / And life is like a song.’ Opening with some epic, soaring strings, the arrangement here is rich and elegant, gilding James’ voice with a poignant glazing.
We’re brought back down to earth again on ‘All I Could Do Was Cry.’ James reverts to desolation, watching the man she loves walk down the aisle with someone else, ‘I heard them promise “Till death do us part” / Each word was a pain in my heart.’ The back-up vocalists sound like a ghost choir, their spectral ‘cry, cry, cry’s giving the song an eerie edge. She’s singing the blues again on ‘Stormy Weather’ which sees her mourning the loss of her lover, ‘Since my man and I, me and my daddy ain’t together / Keeps raining all of the time.’ The melisma she breaks out on the word ‘all’ is both sensational and devastating, heightening her abject misery.
The album bows out with James hollering for the man she’s desperately missing, ‘Ohh, since you, since you’ve been gone, ohh / Life don’t mean a thing / Please, please, please come back to me.’ James’ rendition is peppered with biting snarls to finish the album on an intense, heavy-hearted note.
Thus concludes James’ ode to heartache and lovesickness: in truth, a monumental blues record. Raw, full-bodied and stirring, she possessed a unique, hair-raising voice that, sadly, we’ll never hear live again – she died in 2012, aged seventy-three. In this modern era of flash in the pan pop idols fuelled by a fad driven media, spare some listening time for Etta James – without a doubt, she deserves it!