I had the great pleasure of interviewing Etta James in 1995, when her autobiography Rage to Survive was released. The extraordinary versatility and richness of her six decade career have still yet to be acknowledged by most critics. Aretha Franklin’s great, of course, but James was stranger, more intense, more rhythmically sophisticated, and covered a much wider range of genres and styles with casual mastery – indeed, her ability to sound like different singers at different stages of her career (or sometimes in the same damn song) is one of her hallmarks. If you only know “At Last,” “Something’s Got a Hold On Me,” or “Tell Mama,” do yourself a favor and dive into her remarkable catalogue.
For my money, her 1961 ballad “Don’t Cry Baby” blows the over-played “At Last” out of the water. She could sing romantic pop jazz tunes and gutbucket blues in her sleep, but I’ll always love Etta for her inspired choice of covers: She assumes the voice of the Old Testament God in Randy Newman’s satirical “God’s Song” (1973) and explains with funky, sexy authority why she loves messing with us mere mortals. And just last year, she released an inspired version of Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.” If her voice wasn’t at maximum power, her playful sense of phrasing and timing was intact. Her artistry will be greatly missed.