Top positive review
One person found this helpful
The Big Soul Lady and I'm not talking about dimensions
on 23 March 2015
Another Not Now Music compilation and its traits are largely those we've come to expect. An exceedingly generous selection of tracks that do full justice to the period (1955 to 1962) and very good sound quality. On the slightly less positive side the tracks aren't arranged in order of release so we get the Argo records mixed in with those from Etta's Modern period but maybe I'm the only person who worries about this. What we do get are some perfectly good sleeve notes, and that's something you can't always say about Not Now.
Etta James' early career on which much of her reputation is based, straddled periods at two of the great independent labels of post-war USA, Modern Records of LA from 1955 to 1958 and Argo Records, a subsidiary of the great Chess Records of Chicago, up to 1965. Since Not Now obtain their music via PD regulations, the Argo selections we get are capped at 1962 - I believe the release of this set was 2012.
The majority of the selections here come from Etta's Chess / Argo spell. Not only do we get the singles - and I think we may have both sides of all of them (without detailed checking) - but also present are some well selected album tracks. The Modern material, as I've said, is intermingled. I had expected some jarring due to stylistic differences since Modern marketed Etta more in an R&B vein i.e. as a red hot blues mama along the lines of Big Mama Thornton. However, outside of a handful of tracks like the redoubtable "Good Rockin' Daddy" and her famous response to Hank Ballard, "The Wallflower (Dance with me Henry)", this doesn't happen. One reason for this is the very wide range of both style and songs she recorded at Argo: from out and out pop through blues, standards, slow laments that we'd now call soul, and tough R&B. Sometimes the latter would get adorned with strings, in an obvious attempt to hit the white buyer but that didn't necessarily lessen the power of the performance. And I have to add that I wouldn't be without the Modern stuff. Right near the end we get the excellent "Tough Lover", with a performance that may have borrowed a little from Mr Penniman but still stands proudly on its own two feet.
I should also mention that the two singles made with Harvey Fuqua, right at the beginning of Etta's Argo spell - they were actually released on Chess - are present and correct, and mighty fine they are too.
In my eyes the real difference between Modern and Argo was that the former label was targeting Etta at the US R&B Chart while Argo was more ambitious. Almost from the outset with "All I could do was cry", they were aiming at the white pop record buyer. This was an audience that Chess had already experienced considerable success with via Chuck Berry, and they correctly sensed the opportunity to repeat that success. Etta was undoubtedly a more malleable artist than Berry and certainly was capable of taking on board a much wider range of material. If I've implied any dumbing down in Etta's records whilst at Argo that's unintentional and would be incorrect. The very last single included (from December 1962) is "Would it make any difference to you", a superb country soul effort not unlike some that Atlantic had been releasing from Solomon Burke in the '61, '62 timeframe.
Etta James was the first really big female soul singer to emerge and she paved the way for others like Mary Wells at Motown and Aretha Franklin at Atlantic. And she might just have been the best of the lot.