Etta James - at last!

Etta James: At Last

Album #35 - November 1960

Episode date - March 13, 2024

The Alternative Top 40
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    When used judiciously, a good growl is an important asset for a vocalist. Some don’t need it and/or would never dream of using it, which is specifically why it has value and power when used properly.

    20th century Americans grew up on Bing Crosby and then Frank Sinatra, neither of whom would even enter a room if it held a ruffian who growled their vocal lines. A few blues singers used it to great advantage, though. Big Mama Thornton could blow you off your feet, and Bobby Bland would make you swoon until he unleashed his mighty hair-raising guttural growl that could well near scare somebody like Bing Crosby half to death. By 1960, Etta James had already been around the block a few times, and she picked up quite a bit from her predecessors. She could purr like a kitten and convince you that she was the trembling kind, drawing from a vulnerable part of her soul that would make you ache for her, and then almost out of nowhere, she’d knock the wig right off your head.

    “At Last” is her debut album as a soloist, and it provided a perfect showcase for her emotional range. The title track may be one of the most perfect R&B/pop tunes ever recorded. As an aside, it also serves as a perfect example of how talent will always trump popularity. In 1952, trumpeter Ray Anthony released a recording of “At Last!” that rose to #2 on the pop charts. Etta’s subsequent recording rose no higher than #47, but in the aftermath, nobody remembers Anthony’s version any longer. Some may point to the fabulous string arrangement, or the songwriting talents of Great American Songbook writers Mack David (You’ll Never Know”, “You Make Me Feel So Young”) and Harry Warren (“I Only Have Eyes for You”, “The More I See You”) but for me, the payoff is when Etta’s voice heads toward the upper octave and her inhibitions come loose. Suddenly, you know that she is not only in love, but on a passionate pursuit that has overtaken any sense of precaution.

    The same passion appears throughout the album, with mixed results. Stellar tracks like “My Dearest Darling,” “Trust in Me” and “All I Could Do Was Cry” all benefit enormously from James’ stylistic expression, but when the material is sketchy, she can sound a bit overwrought. James wrote “Tough Mary” herself, but it more or less makes the point that she is best as an interpretive singer, and the gender swap of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” has her reaching for a litany of verbal gymnastics to make a female perspective seem remotely logical. It’s moments like this that make you realize that Argo Records (her label) is a subsidiary of Chess Records, the premier blues label of its time, and that she represented something new in the label’s direction, featuring a set of lushly orchestrated recordings instead of a blues band. In ten short songs, (the album is only 29 minutes long), James broaches more stylistic ground than most artists cover in a career, and “At Last!” stands as one of the more remarkable debut albums of its time.

    Featured Tracks:

    Anything to Say You're Mine

    My Dearest Darling

    Trust in Me

    A Sunday Kind of Love

    Tough Mary

    I Just Want to Make Love to You

    At Last

    All I Could Do Was Cry

    Stormy Weather

    Girl of My Dreams

    November 1960 - Billboard Charted #68

     

     

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