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Blues - Released January 1, 1999 | Geffen*

Distinctions The Qobuz Ideal Discography
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Blues - Released January 1, 1961 | Argo

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R&B/Soul - Released September 29, 1998 | Private Music

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R&B/Soul - Released June 5, 2006 | RCA Victor

After her tough blues and R&B records in the early years of the 21st century -- 2003's Let's Roll and 2004's Blues to the Bone -- Etta James throws a quiet storm changeup. All the Way's 11 tracks are pop songs -- indeed, a few are standards -- written between the 1930s and the 1990s. James song choices are curious. The Great American Songbook tunes include the title track (written by Samuel Kahn and Jimmy Van Heusen), Leonard Bernstein's and Stephen Sondheim's "Somewhere" from West Side Story, and even Bob Telson's "Calling You" from the score to the 1987 film Baghdad Cafe -- it's been recorded by everyone from Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion to Jeff Buckley and Gal Costa. Unfortunately, nothing gets added in the offering; these are decent if not remarkable renditions. Beginning with track two, James offers her own bead on what a "standard" is with her excellent rendering of Bobby Womack's "Stop on By," (as read through the Boz Scaggs fakebook). James acted as executive producer on this set, which was actually produced by her sons Sametto and Donto Metto James (the rhythm section here), as well as guitarist Joshua Skair. It's overly polished, and that's just the beginning of the problems to be found on the album. The crystalline, laid-back beat, shimmering layered keyboards, and light funky guitar are the hallmarks of a modern adult contemporary soul style that is also employed on a nearly seven-minute cover of Johnny "Guitar" Watson's laid-back soul-blues classic "Strung Out." The really curious moments here are her funk-lite take of Mick Hucknall's (Simply Red) "Holding Back the Years," and a rather boring cover of John Lennon's "Imagine"; they appear back to back here. The other odd sequencing is the way James juxtaposes R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly," James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," Prince's "Purple Rain," and Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin On." (co-written with Al Cleveland and Renaldo Benson). This quartet of tunes makes profound sense, though, as they are all tracks by some of the great African-American song composers in history. The problem lies in the interpretation. Kelly's true, positive-thinking anthem becomes a sensitive ballad in James' treatment of it, removing its life and making it a syrupy sun poem. Likewise, "What's Goin' On" is nearly too polished, and feels more like a meditation on the past than a song interpreted to reflect the urgency of the day -- which it most certainly does. The lavish flamenco intro to the Brown tune is a bit off-putting in terms of its slickness, but the smoky, militantly female reading redeems it and makes it one of the album's best tunes. Which leaves the Prince cover: with its compressed acoustic guitar and Sklair's electric fills, dovetailed by a Rhodes piano, James reinterprets this as a mature soul workout. She adds depth, dimension, and underscores how timeless a tune it is by adding more tough-love R&B to its gospel flair. It should have been chosen to close the disc. Despite her best intentions and the authority of her voice, All the Way is far from perfect. Compared to her last two outings, it simply pales. The ambition of the concept does not yield the hoped-for results in the packaging. ~ Thom Jurek
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R&B/Soul - Released January 30, 2001 | Private Music

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R&B/Soul - Released September 21, 2004 | RCA Victor

Etta James has worked in countless styles throughout her long career, and she is equally at home singing gospel, R&B, soul, jazz, and even rock & roll, but her roots have always been solidly planted in the blues, and she is arguably the finest living singer active in the genre. Perhaps because she doesn't sing only the blues, however, when she does, it sticks out as something special, and with Blues to the Bone she goes down to the river and dives in completely, turning out a solid album of no-frills, gutbucket performances. Her voice has deepened and coarsened over the years, making it the perfect vehicle of authenticity and authority as she tackles classics of the genre like John Lee Hooker's "Crawling King Snake," Robert Johnson's "Dust My Broom," and Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning," backed by a garage blues combo led by her sons, Donito and Sametto James. James' versions bring new dimensions to each of these hoary old chestnuts, which have generally been sung by men, and her smoke-tinged alto makes each her own, instilling them all with a wise, desperate, and confident intimacy. She gives Jimmy Reed's "Hush Hush" a solid reading, while her take on Willie Dixon's "Lil' Red Rooster" is a tension-filled, atmospheric gem. The most striking track here, however, is James' version of the Elmore James tune "The Sky Is Crying," which emerges as epic and poignant. Much of contemporary blues spins on its own excesses and on a hundred years of accumulative clichés, but when an artist like Etta James comes home to sing the blues, the world has to rejoice and take notice, because in her hands the old clichéd phrases become vital and new again. ~ Steve Leggett
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Jazz - Released June 28, 2010 | Masterworks

Etta James has been showing people how it’s done for over 50 years now (her first single, “Roll with Me Henry,” was tracked in 1955 when she was still a teenager), and her passionate, nuanced singing hasn’t diminished one bit in the 21st century. Her earliest sides were blues-inflected R&B and soul numbers, but starting in the early '90s she expanded her material to include the Great American Songbook, tackling with style songs by composers like the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart, and Cole Porter, and elegant versions of songs by rock artists like John Lennon and Prince, always bringing a weary, gritty grace to the table. This two-disc compilation set features some of the best sides she’s recorded in the past two decades, including gems like her jazzy take on “Cry Me a River” and a heartbreaking version of “Try a Little Tenderness.” But the heart of James' approach to business is the blues, as the wonderful set opener here, “The Blues Is My Business,” states clearly, and her renditions collected here of Willie Dixon's “Little Red Rooster” and John Lee Hooker's “Crawlin’ King Snake” are clear highlights in a collection filled to the brim with highlights. She’s not a diva -- she’s the real deal. This summation of her past 20 years as a recording artist shows just how real she still is. ~ Steve Leggett
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R&B/Soul - Released March 24, 1997 | Private Music

Love's Been Rough on Me is a terrific latter-day album from Etta James, capturing her at the peak of her powers. James' voice has diminished only slightly over the course of her career, and she knows how to make such warhorses as "I've Been Loving You Too Long" sound fresh. She also invests contemporary music, including John Berry's contemporary country hit "If I Had Any Pride Left at All," with real soul. The result is a record that delivers the real goods with grace and style. ~ Leo Stanley
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R&B/Soul - Released May 19, 1998 | Private Music

Life, Love & the Blues is slick, funky, and thoroughly commercial. The queen of R&B does an admirable job of keeping her head above water, but this package of covers comes off more like the work of a tight lounge band than the work of a blues master. ~ Tim Sheridan
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R&B/Soul - Released April 5, 1999 | Private Music

There's no denying that Etta James is a powerhouse, one of the finest blues singers of the 20th century. Perhaps that's what makes her latter-day records so frustrating: The talent is still apparent and abundant, but the albums themselves are unsatisfying. All the ingredients are in the right place, but something went slightly awry during the execution. After all, Heart of a Woman is a great idea for an album. James chose 11 love songs from her favorite female singers -- Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, and Carmen McRae -- augmenting the album with a new version of her signature song, "At Last." She has recorded several of these songs before (including Alice Cooper's "Only Women Bleed," which inexplicably became a standard for both her and McRae), but the difference with Heart of a Woman is the context. Here, they're put in a smooth jazz setting, masterminded by James, who has producer credit. No matter how well she sings the songs here -- and she still possesses an exceptionally strong voice, robust and filled with passion -- the well-scrubbed, glossy surfaces on the record keeps it from being engaging. It's not bad listening, it just never has the emotional impact James intended it to have. At times, it's hard not to wish that she worked with a producer who brought her back to the organic sound of her classic '50s and '60s sessions, but James has been pursuing this smoothed-out style for a decade now. It's clear that this is what she wants to do. She still sounds good, and that means her latter-day albums are listenable -- but they don't resonate like the best of her records. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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R&B - Released September 8, 1992 | Elektra Records

A myriad of big names came together for the making of this album. Jerry Wexler produced The Right Time, and Etta James' sidemen include Steve Cropper and Lucky Peterson -- but the final product is a disappointment. It's just too slickly rendered to come close to the knockout punch of her vintage Chess material. ~ Bill Dahl
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R&B - Released April 8, 2008 | Rhino - Warner Bros.

Originally released on Warners Brothers to scant acclaim in 1978, this Jerry Wexler-produced masterpiece finds James in astounding voice with a batch of great material to apply her massive interpretive powers to. The band, including the cream of the late-'70s Los Angeles session hot-shots (Cornell Dupree, Jeff Porcaro, Chuck Rainey, Plas Johnson, Jim Horn), lays it down soulful and simple and the result is a modern-day R&B classic. Highlights abound throughout, but special attention must be turned to James' takes on "Only Women Bleed" and the Eagles' "Take It to the Limit." ~ Cub Koda
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Blues - Released December 20, 2017 | HHO

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Blues - Released January 1, 1973 | Hip-O Select (MC)

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Blues - Released December 13, 1963 | Geffen

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R&B/Soul - Released May 28, 2002 | Private Music

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R&B/Soul - Released October 25, 1994 | Private Music

Commercially, the 1970s weren't nearly as kind to Etta James as the 1950s and '60s had been. The sleekness that characterized Northern "uptown" soul and disco didn't appeal to the big-voiced belter, who stuck to her guns and continued to embrace the type of gritty, hard-hitting Southern soul and down-home blues that had earned her so devoted a following. Though absent from Black radio playlists, she had no problem attracting enthusiastic live audiences. At 41, James sounds like she's very much in her prime on this live recording from 1981. Whether tearing into an Otis Redding medley, her hit "Tell Mama" or Chicago blues staples like Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love to You" and Jimmy Reed's "Baby, What You Want Me to Do," the earthy singer clearly excels by sticking with what she does best. One of the CD's most pleasant surprises is a version of the Eagles' "Take It to the Limit," which works remarkably well in an R&B setting. ~ Alex Henderson
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Jazz - Released January 1, 1987 | Fantasy Records

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Blues - Released February 17, 1965 | Geffen

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R&B/Soul - Released March 14, 1994 | Private Music

The popular Etta James usually performs raunchy single-entendre blues, so this surprisingly subtle outing is a real change of pace. She sounds quite laid-back on a set of ballads associated with Billie Holiday and utilizes a jazz rhythm section led by pianist Cedar Walton plus three horn players, including the great Red Holloway on tenor and alto. James makes no attempts at exploring uptempo material or scatting, sticking to soulful interpretations of the classic ballads. Despite the lack of variety in tempos, the music is quite satisfying. ~ Scott Yanow

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