Etta James
Life, Love & the Blues
Private Music 01005-82162-2

For more than 40 years Etta James has been singing the blues, R&B, soul and gospel with one of the finest voices to record over that span. So it is nice that James went back to her early roots to explore songs instrumental in putting record companies like Chess and Motown on the musical map. In the process, she proves she can produce her own work more evenly than a veteran producer like Barry Beckett did on last year’s Love’s Been Rough on Me.

Her backing group, dubbed the Roots Band, includes her sons as a rhythm section (Donto James on drums and Sametto James on bass), and some other very accomplished players — Dave Matthews on keyboards, Bobby Murray and Josh Sklair on guitars, Jimmy "Z" on saxes and harmonica and Tom Poole on trumpet. This might border on over-production, but James reins in the band with her instrument — that wonderful voice — without losing sight of what gives the songs their power.

Opening with "Born Under a Bad Sign," James almost growls out the lyrics as Sklair’s guitar solo sears through the rest of the production. One of the most seductive tunes, Johnny "Guitar" Watson’s "I Want to Ta Ta You, Baby," gets a sexy, soulful delivery. She also gets a bit funky with the Marvin Gaye tune, "Inner City Blues (Wanna Make Me Holler)," as guest Leo Nocentelli adds some great guitar runs in the piece.

My personal favorite is Willie Dixon’s "Spoonful." Her thundering vocal bridges the past with current production techniques, and the band plays its tightest here, with Jimmy "Z" taking a great turn on harmonica. She tackles Dixon’s "Hoochie Coochie Gal (Man)" and finds once again that Dixon’s material is a nice fit. Equally compelling are the more contemporary artists she covers. For example, James’ voice and the horn section on Al Green’s "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)" sound ripe for radio, as does her cover of Sly Stone’s "If You Want Me to Stay" featuring some tasty keyboard work by Matthews.

The only misstep is the title tune, a less than memorable song surrounded by 11 gems. For a blues diva who has been there and back, that is not too much to be blue about.

— John Koetzner

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Boulder, CO, USA.