Etta James “Queen Of Soul – with bonus tracks” (Kent CDKEND 377)
By Pete Nickols
Bobby Is His Name; I Wish Someone Would Care; That Man Belongs Back Here With Me; Somewhere Out There; Breaking Point; Flight 101; Loving You More Every Day; Do Right; I Worry About You; Mellow Fellow; You Got Me Where You Want Me; Only Time Will Tell; Pushover; You Can’t Talk To A Fool; Would It Make Any Difference To You; Stop the Wedding; How Do You Speak To An Angel; Be Honest With Me; Pay Back; Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be); Two Sides (To Every Story); Tomorrow Night; I Can’t Hold It In Anymore.
Etta James was truly one of black-music’s great vocalists but she was a product of the blues and R&B era and, frankly, back in November 1964 when “Queen Of Soul” was released, that’s what she sang best: blues, blues-ballads and R&B. And like so many much-recorded fine vocalists, sadly she wasn’t always provided with the right songs or the right musical arrangements.
Calling her album “Queen Of Soul” was clearly a deliberate marketing ploy by Chess (itself then trying to shed its well-deserved ‘blues’ mantle for a more ‘with-it’ persona) with which to try to ‘re-invent’ one of its big-name long-term R&B hit-makers as a soul-queen - and, let’s face it - with Aretha still ‘struggling’ at Columbia at the time, no other solo female had yet really laid claim to such a grandiose title.
Had Chess got some good soul songwriters together, set aside a few recording days at Ter Mar and then brought Etta James in to record such material in front of a soul-proficient rhythm section, a resulting album, even with such a pretentious title as “Queen Of Soul”, might well have been both aesthetically and commercially more successful. But no - just like when they issued old Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley tracks in 1962 on the “Chuck Berry Twist” and “Bo Diddley’s A Twister” albums simply to cash-in on the then dance phenomenon – all they did was to find some chiefly already ‘in the can’ Etta tracks (some of them over 2 years old), put them on an album and make sure they named it so as to imply that Etta (and Chess) ‘sure know what this soul-music stuff is all about’.
In fact, back then, they really didn’t - and most of the tracks on this album were not even in the soul idiom. In truth, Etta never really produced a full body of potent soul material until she went to Fame in 1967 to create what would be her superb “Tell Mama” album.
The late-1964 album (also poor value for the times with only 10 tracks on offer) was unsurprisingly not a commercial success and therefore never established Etta as a ‘soul’ singer at that time. Even though there were only 10 albums listed weekly on the new Billboard ‘R&B’ Album chart which began on 1st January 1965, Etta’s offering did not feature amongst them. Nor did it make the already well-established main Billboard 150-position Album Chart, even though her live album “Rocks The House” had managed it earlier in ’64.
Against the kind of genuine soul material then hitting even the album charts, Etta’s offering would have sounded very dated and it clearly failed to register with the soul crowd of the day. What’s more, the doubtless Chess-encouraged and paid-for hype of the back-sleeve notes by a certain Dave Potter, the theatrical editor of the Chicago Daily Defender (what did he know about soul?), was truly cringe-making.
That’s not to say this Kent CD, including 13 bonus tracks, doesn’t also include a few goodies. With a singer of Etta’s quality always in great voice, it has to succeed somewhere sooner or later.
Taking the original album tracks first, there is just one really standout track for me. It shines like a beacon out of the fog of mediocrity in terms of the song (and arrangement) choice which sadly envelopes most of the rest of the LP – not, you understand, Etta’s always fine vocalising.
This ‘standout’ is the amazing New York-recorded “Mellow Fellow”, always one of my all-time favourite James recordings. It’s not really soul but ‘in your face R&B’ dragged screaming into the soul era but what a tour de force it is! I well remember buying the original Argo 45 at the time in glorious mono and how the damn thing nearly sent my pickup jumping off the turntable, the recording levels in the vinyl grooves being so high! I think the engineer probably just threw his hands in the air in despair and let the needles soar gloriously ‘into the red’. It’s a giant of a record, with a stupendous gospel intro by Etta (and the wonderful back-up girls), which is then driven along by some great rhythm guitar and terrific drumming with Etta utilising her most forceful ‘I’m the boss’ vocal-mode to great advantage. The stereo mix is too ‘wide’ and some of the almost frightening impact of the mono version is lost - but it’s still essential listening. It’s about as subtle as a steam hammer – and all the better for it!
Also a good, strongly-sung, driving opus is “Do Right”, despite it having been cut in 1962 (barely even into the main soul era), while the pacy “Breaking Point” (penned by Maurice McAllister) is also OK and well-suited to Etta’s 60’s pop-R&B vocal-style.
The other track I quite like is the opener, “Bobby Is His Name”, which was the flip of “Mellow Fellow” when released on a single and was also recorded at the same New York session in October 1964, the only contemporaneous session booked by Chess presumably with the album in mind. The song is actually quite soulful, despite the corny-sounding title-phrase detracting somewhat when sung so often.
“I Wish Someone Would Care” is just plagiarism. The arrangement here tries to follow Irma Thomas’ Spring ‘64 original hit almost note for note. No-one should ever try to match Irma’s magnificent crie de couer about the heartbreak experienced following the break-up of a once strong relationship, not even a singer as good as Etta. Some classics just ‘won’t’ cover. Taken on its own it’s OK but against Irma’s original it’s a ‘no-contest’.
The fey pop of “That Man Belongs To Me” and blues-ballads like “Somewhere Out There”, “Flight 101” and “I Worry About You” would all have sounded dated even in late’64/early ‘65 (no surprise, really, when you realise that the last two-named songs were yet more ‘in the can’ cuts from way back in 1962).
Even “Loving You More Every Day” is still a touch ‘old-school’ but at least it produces some great, genuinely soulful wailing from Etta.
Of the ‘bonus’ tracks on this CD, “Only Time Will Tell” from 1965 is a fine emotional soul-ballad; “You Can’t Talk To A Fool”, “Lover Man” and “Tomorrow Night” from the same era are all beautifully sung but are more of a throwback to the blues-ballad style, thanks mainly to the overuse of strings; “You Got Me Where You Want Me” is like a re-make of Jimmy Reed’s 1960 blues hit “Baby What You Want Me To Do” (Etta’s version on her 1964 live album having been a high-point of that set); “Pushover” is Etta’s good-of-its-kind but very poppish hit, cut back in November 1962; “Stop The Wedding”, also from ’62, is simply classic Etta James – one of her great slow-paced blues-ballads and, yes, very soulful for its time; “How Do You Speak To An Angel” from the same period is contrastingly a straight MOR ballad enhanced only by Etta’s lovely vocal phrasing; “Pay Back” and “Two Sides”, both from ’63, are good, catchy albeit almost Motownesque pop-soul from Billy Davis’ pen.
Which leaves us with three songs which together could be subtitled ”Etta Sings Country”, all cut in Nashville in November 1962. I reckon you’ll need to actually be a country fan to rave about Etta’s ‘take’ on cowboy Gene Autry’s “Be Honest With Me” and also (surprisingly, in view of the ID of the writer) Jimmy Radcliffe’s “I Can’t Hold It In Anymore”, but much better - and much closer to actual country-soul - is the appealing “Would It Make Any Difference To You”.
So a real variety of styles on offer here with the only constant being Etta James’ great vocal quality – but Queen Of Soul? She was never really that and certainly not on the strength of the 10 tracks which made up the LP of that name.