Etta James – Deep In The Night – Warner Brothers (1978)/ Pure Pleasure Records PPAN BSK3156 (2015) – audiophile stereo vinyl, 41:08 ****:
(Etta James – vocals; Chuck Rainey – bass; Jeff Porcaro – drums; Keith Johnson – electric piano; Cornell Dupree – lead guitar; Larry Carlton – rhythm guitar, rhythm track arrangements; Brian Ray – slide guitar; Richard Tee – piano, organ; Tom Roady – percussion; Jim Horn – saxophone; Plas Johnson – saxophone; Alexander Hamilton – vocal background arrangements, background vocals; Gilbert Ivey, Henry Jackson, Joyce Austin, Merry Clayton, Reuben Franklin – background vocals)
Female blues singers have sustained an important legacy. Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Memphis Minnie, Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ruth Brown and Bonnie Raitt immediately come to mind. But no singer connected blues to rock and roll like Etta James. With her powerhouse voice and soulful resonance, she began her ascent to blues (at to some extent, crossover) stardom at Chess Records. Her early career included the singles, “If I Can’t Have You” and “Spoonful”. But it was her performance of “At Last” (the same title as her Chess album debut) that broke through.
Between stints at Chess and Warner Brothers, James became an unforgettable singer, incorporating jazz and gospel into the blues. Her personal life was marked by substance abuse and a myriad of other issues (Note; It was rumored that her father was pool-shooter “Minnesota Fats”).
Despite gaps in her recording career, Etta James released albums and continued to perform. She won six Grammys and seventeen Blues Music Awards. Hits like “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” and “At Last” became a part of advertising iconography. She opened for the Rolling Stones and appeared in the Chuck Berry documentary “Hail Hail Rock ‘N’ Roll”. Her distinctive contralto and performances at festivals (especially Montreux) elevated her musical profile and introduced her to new generations of fans. In 1993 Etta James was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
Pure Pleasure Records has released a 180-gram re-mastered vinyl pressing of the 1978 Warner release, Deep In The Night. Produced by Jerry Wexler (Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Allman Bothers, Aretha Franklin), the album endeavors to connect James with rock and roll and soul mainstream. From the opening groove hooks of “Laying Beside You” it seems that Etta James is redefining herself as a soul singer. The arrangements are lush with choral flourishes, ’70s electric guitar and saxophones (arranged by Jimmy Haskell). Even with the heavy dose of studio polish, James’ vocal power is compelling. Only a truly great singer would take on Janis Joplin’s signature number “Piece Of My Heart”. James brings a slow-burning intensity that the song requires, but eschews the vocal histrionics. She creates a gospel vibe and it works in this muscular setting. It is more than credible. Where the gospel metamorphosis doesn’t work is on The Eagles hit, “Take It To The Limit”. “Only Women Bleed” (a hit for Alice Cooper) takes full advantage of visceral soul with sexual connotation and social relevance. Here James cuts loose from the indulgent musical framework in the final refrain. Perhaps the most compelling performance is the title song. James initiates a sultry, spoken word lyric (for about half of the cut) that is both anecdotal and mesmerizing. Her ability to manage lower-register singing is impressive. Here the strings offer a delicate counterpoint to the eventual impassioned vocals.
For anyone who has listened to Hank Williams’ yodel-infused “Lovesick Blues”, they will be in for a shock. James reinvents this country tune as an up tempo, nasty r&b opus. With attitude and barrelhouse piano, the song is invigorating. There has always been a bond between gospel and country, and this treatment is evidence of that. Reverting back to Sunday morning church aesthetics, “Strange Man” is a celebration. A soul-pop ballad, “Sugar On The Floor” boasts Haskell’s most intricate string, but is overly formulaic. However, James shines on Allen Toussaint’s “Sweet Touch Of Love”. Full of New Orleans funkiness and swing elements, her gritty vocals and wailing represent the apex of her talent. The finale is an odd reworking of “I’d Rather Go Blind” (here, titled “Blind Girl”). It is unadulterated soul and has some all too rare “over-the-top” scatting.
Deep In the Night is not a quintessential Etta James album. But in 180-gram vinyl, the sound is exceptional. James’ voice is captured with a fullness and emotional range. Her pitch and vocal phrasing is superior. The Haskell strings and rock instruments are textured and blend well. Subtle touches like organ and pedal steel feel graceful. As it turns out, this is a very good soul album and worth the money if you don’t already have it!
Side 1: Laying Beside You; Piece Of My Heart; Only Women Bleed; Take It To The Limit; Deep In The Night
Side 2: Lovesick Blues; Strange Man; Sugar On The Floor; Sweet Touch Of Love; Blind Girl
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