I had the opportunity to catch James a few years back at the Monterey Jazz Festival and it was evident from the moment she hit the stage that years of hard living had done nothing to diminish her talent. More accurately, they seemed merely to have polished it to a hard shine. And let me also recommend Beyonce’s turn as James in the terribly under-rated Chess Records-biopic from a few year back, “Cadillac Records.”
Given all that, I am pleased to note that the latest Legacy Recordings project includes seven James albums, most notably “Live From San Francisco.” The box set is due August 28 along with the eight-disc “The Brecker Brothers: The Complete Arista Albums Collection” and the four-disc “Sarah Vaughan: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection.”
The James set, “The Complete Private Music Blues, Rock ‘n’ Soul Albums Collection,” includes the albums “Love’s Been Rough On Me” (1997), “Life, Love And The Blues” (1998), “Matriarch Of The Blues” (2000), “Burnin’ Down The House” (2002), “Let’s Roll” (2003) and “Blues To The Bone” (2004). James took home Grammy Awards for the latter two.
”Live in San Francisco” is billed as a bonus disc and its inclusion is entirely fitting. While born in Los Angeles, James moved to the Fillmore at age 12 and it was in San Francisco that she became inovled in music, initially through doo wop. Indeed, as the press release accompanying today’s announcement makes clear, the Bay Area years did nothing less than launch James’ career.
A move to San Francisco led to the start of her first girl group, the Creolettes, and writing one of her first songs in 1954, the suggestive “Roll With Me, Henry,” her answer song to (Hank Ballard and) the Midnighters’ #1 R&B hit “Work With Me, Annie.” That song brought her to the attention of R&B bandleader Johnny Otis, who changed her name to Etta James, and Modern Records, who changed her song title to “The Wallflower,” her first #1 R&B hit.
“Live in San Francisco” was recorded at the Boarding House in March 1981 but not released on Private until 1994. On the disc, James and her band – Brian Ray (guitar), Bobby Martin (saxophone, keyboards), Keith Johnson (trumpet, keyboards), Kurtis Teel (bass) and Armand Grimaldi (drums) – tear through a set marked by blues staples (“I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “I’d Rather Go Blind”), a three-song medley tribute to Otis Redding and a remarkable R&B reading of the Eagles’ “Take It to the Limit.”
To hear it today is to realize how versatile a singer James was; this is light years in style away from “At Last” but possesses all of that signature song’s grit and soul. James was nothing less than a jazz-blues-soul gem and she will be missed.
Source: Brian McCoy, Examiner