Chess recordings of Etta James contain her best

Amber Bonnett and Erin Wynkoop

Amber:One of the first American independent labels, Chess Records, recorded several performers not available on many “major” labels, bringing many jazz, blues and R&B performers to Chicago’s blossoming music community. The Chess brothers, Jewish immigrants from Poland, released many iconic legends during the middle of the twentieth century, among them Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Etta James.

“Her Best- The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection” is a concentrated 20-track sample of some of Etta James’ best work available otherwise in prolific volumes in boxed sets and single formats. With the advent of many contemporary R&B revival bands such as The Detroit Cobras and The Rosebuds, it is easy to see James’ amazing influence on the current music scene. Raw, sensual, urgent vocals combined with hip-swinging, lip-biting soul, funk and rock & roll aesthetics dare the most intense wallflowers not to tap a little self-conscious toe. This one-hour and one-minute album presents inarguable evidence that anyone involved in this genre is standing, so to speak, on the shoulders of a giant.

Like a winged herald announcing the flavor of the ensuing experience, jazz mainstay “At Last” opens the disk with the familiar strings and crooning vocals of one of James’ most recognizable songs: “At last/ my love has come along/ My lonely days are over/ and life is like a song” Indeed. Not to worry James’ more experienced fans, the disk digs deeper to include less conspicuous numbers such as the raucous “Next Door to the Blues,” which features a danceable upbeat bass line and doo-wop background characterization. This collection includes both something for those who are being introduced to James for the first time, and also those who wish to own some of James’ early offerings at Chess.

A bonus encounter with this disk is the sense of gratitude that these recordings survived the destruction of hundreds of thousands of records during the dismantling of Chess Records in 1975. The master tapes survived, which is a blessing for all of us, for Etta James simply cannot be duplicated.

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Erin

Blues music is something that comes straight from the soul, a gut reaction to a situation that perhaps ended in heartache, or a tale of unattainable love. Whatever the situation may be, Etta James has been the quintessential leading lady of blues since the ’60s, pouring her heart out to audiences around the world. “Her Best: The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection” is an essential album for any blues lover. The first song on the album is James’ classic hit, “At Last,” which has been played for countless newlyweds for decades. James croons, “At last my love has come along/ my lonely days are over/ and life is like a song,” while professing her love.

Other songs on the album of significance include “My Dearest Darling” and “All the Way Down.” To some people, the fact that James rarely sings her own lyrics is a turn-off. Blues comes from emotion, and if a singer sings someone else’s blues, does that qualify as being an authentic blues singer? I can appreciate what Etta James has done for music, but to me, she is nothing more than a pop star singing someone else’s blues.