Etta James was one of the greatest singers of the 20th century. Beyond her signature “At Last”, she was a musical chameleon who jumped across genres. Her sound infuses elements of soul, pop, jazz, blues, rock, and even country. Below, we dig into 30 of her best songs, both hits and hidden gems in our Etta James playlist: Etta James Essentials.
Etta’s career stretched from the 1960’s all the way to her death in January 2012, releasing her final album less than 3 months before her death. Her recording career began at 15. She co-wrote a song called “Roll With Me, Henry”, which was a response to another song called “Work With Me, Annie” by Hank Ballard. The song put Etta closer to the spotlight, but like many songs of the era, found greater success when a white singer “adapted” it. Nevertheless, Etta persevered.
Even through her darkest times, Etta made great and emotive music. Take cuts from 1974’s Come A Little Closer. She actually commuted to recording sessions from a rehab center where she was working through a nasty heroin addiction. She sounds strong as ever on her reading of “St. Louis Blues”. Meanwhile on “Feeling Uneasy”, she only moans and moans until the end of the song when she struggles to verbalize “I’m feeling uneasy”. In her autobiography Rage To Survive: The Etta James Story, she revealed that she was so sick from the withdrawal while recording the song she couldn’t write lyrics and could barely even speak.
During her days at Chess Records, Etta helped the mainly-blues label crossover to pop successes. Leonard and Phil Chess employed what they referred to as “the sweetening” to achieve this. “Sweeting” refers to the addition of strings to achieve a more lush sound to the records, therefore appealing to the white audience. Records like “At Last”, “A Sunday Kind Of Love”, and “Trust In Me” all prominently feature “the sweetening”
Expanding beyond “the sweetening”, Etta got in touch with soul and proved a worthy adversary for soul mavens of the era such as Aretha Franklin. “Tell Mama” and the energetic live performance of “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” are some of Etta’s best soul work, especially the latter, which prominently features soul clapping, alluding to a gospel influence.
Some of Etta’s strongest work is her blues. She is one of the baddest female blues singers to ever do it. Especially in her later years, on songs like “Got My Mojo Working”, her ability is effortless. Even in the ’70’s, her aforementioned “St. Louis Blues” is riveting to say the least.
Etta is a rock chick to the core. Especially in her later years, she leans more towards a sound that blends blues and rock together. Take “The Blues Is My Business”. The electric guitar has a blues feel, but when combined with the drums it’s all rock. Even her cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” has some funk to it, but feels like rock’n’roll at it’s core.
It’s a well known fact that Billie Holiday played a major part in influencing Etta. She even recorded an entire album of Billie Holiday songs in the 90’s. Though Billie had one of the most distinct voices in music, Etta intriguingly echoes her at times, especially on “Body And Soul” Her 1960 cover of “Stormy Weather” relies more on the Chess Records “sweeting” to push it through, the admiration and influence are still there.
One of the most unique endeavors Etta took in her career was a light foray into country music. Though some may mistake it for a soul song, Etta was always adamant that “I’d Rather Go Blind” was a country song. She wrote the song, which painfully laments a woman realizing her relationship is over. She’s so heartbroken though, that she admits she’d rather go blind than see the man leave. The song is so poignant and powerful that it’s used as the closer in the film Cadillac Records, where Beyonce portrayed Etta and gave a mesmerizing performance of the song.
An Etta James playlist is incomplete without calling out a few of the notable covers sprinkled throughout. First off, one of the most important covers (aside from “At Last”) is “Piece of My Heart”. The song’s originator was Aretha Franklin’s sister Erma who brought it to life with a strong R&B influence. Of course, Janis Joplin essentially owned it when she covered it and turned it into a rock anthem. On Etta’s version though, she shines as she masterfully marries Erma and Janis’ versions in terms of arrangement. While Erma had soul and Janis had grit, Etta has both. Her booming voice commands attention over this bluesy rendition. It’s unforgettable.
There’s also a unique, yet brilliant rendition of “Welcome To The Jungle”, taken from her final album The Dreamer. Yes, the Guns’N’Roses song. And yes, it’s bluesy and amazing. You may recognize a bit of her soft and beautiful cover of “My Funny Valentine” thanks to a clever placement as the centerpiece to a certain Kanye West song. Finally, there’s her very necessary cover of “Night Time Is The Right Time”. She cuts into this song like nobody’s business, giving Margie Hendricks (who sang the solo on the Ray Charles version, which you know from The Cosby Show) a run for her money.
The Matriarch Of The Blues
In conclusion, Etta is one of the baddest vocalists of all time. She can take damn near any genre and cut into it or skate over it like nobody’s business. Whether she’s looking for “A Sunday Kind Of Love”, declaring that she’s a “W.O.M.A.N.”, or admitting that she’d “Rather Go Blind” than see her man leave her, she undisputedly holds her title as Matriarch of the Blues.
Rest easy, Etta. We miss you.
Listen to our Etta James playlist Etta Essentials, below, and let us know what your favorite Etta songs are!