Etta James

Etta James

The Chess Box

MCA

Like Aretha Franklin (arguably her only peer with as much natural ability in the R&B vocal field), Etta James is such a phenomenally gifted interpreter, she can sing practically anything and inject it with soul, passion, and an intensity that would not have been evident in the hands of lesser talents. In fact, if there’s any point that’s proven by this lavish, three CD set it’s that Jamesetta Hawkins always rose above her material, some of which was at best ordinary. Over the course of the 72 remastered tracks on this sumptuous collection, James works her magic with doo-wop, country, orchestrated pop, jazz, standards, and of course, her fiery brand of blues mixed with R&B.

Kicking off with her first track for the Chess label, 1960’s “All I Could Do Was Cry,” James had already found her vocal style, and even the smarmy arrangement complete with angelic background singers and faceless accompaniment, can’t contain James as she lets loose on the chorus and nearly blows out the microphone. Like the female equivalent of Ray Charles, James owns every genre she works in, as evidenced by her version of Gene Autry’s country weeper “Be Honest with Me,” one of the box’s ten previously unreleased tracks. Even her swampy version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” another newly found song, takes the rock classic and radically reinterprets it as a torchy R&B/jazz burner.

Obviously all the early Chess hits that inspired Janis Joplin and countless others, like “Tell Mama,” “Security,” and “Something’s Got a Hold of Me,” are accounted for, but it’s when the set digs deeper into James’ catalog and unearths treasures like her version of Oliver Sain’s “The Soul of a Man” that the real gems come to light.

The remastered sound is simply stunning, the 40-page book filled with rare pictures and snappy song-by-song documentation is lovingly compiled, and the track selection is the best ever from this 15-year period in James’ career. I could go on, but why bother? There are plenty of other Etta James compilations on the market, but this is the place to start. Maybe someday the singer will get the career spanning, multi-label set she deserves (anyone listening at Rhino?). Until then, when anyone asks who is the best female R&B singer ever, pull out this box because it’s all the proof you need.

MCA Records, 70 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA 91608; http://www.umusic.com/

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