Who’s Blue? Rare Chess Recordings Of The 60s and 70s is reviewed.
Much as there is to commend Etta James’ honking 50s recordings, it’s her later time at Chess that produced her greatest work and those most synonymous with her name. Even when she was locked in the arms of bad men, heroin addiction, cashing bad cheques with partner in crime Esther Phillips (if you’re gonna be ripped off…) and jail, Leonard Chess ensured she had a roof over her head and kept her from starving; even if he, in Etta’s own words ‘ripped off copyrights’ and ‘****** you on royalties’. She counted herself lucky and paid him back by always cutting the mustard in the studio.
Who’s Blue? collates 24 tracks recorded between 1961 and 1976: a smattering are well known but the majority – on CD for the first time – will be fresh listening to many an ear. Two thirds were cut in the 60s and they range from string laden ballads, danceable rhythm and soul, and stabbing funk. They aren’t sequenced chronologically but are more or less batched together by style.
Her personality is striking on her best records and is evident here too as she pours herself in to the songs with that unmistakable phrasing of hers that swings between her overlooked vulnerability and often mentioned toughness. James Brown sang ‘I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door I’ll Get It Myself)’; Etta James would open that door herself.
It’s pushing it to call ‘Seven Day Fool’, ‘Fire’ or even ‘Street of Tears’ rare to anyone with a few Etta singles in their box but it certainly applies to ‘Can’t Shake It’ – a previously unissued girl group dancer from 1964 which had it been available as a single would now be as instantly recognisable in R&B clubs as ‘Mellow Fellow’ or ‘Something’s Got A Hold On Me’ (neither included here). Album track ‘Do Right’ is another in the same club friendly vein. The pair would make a killer 45.
Not every track over the 70 minutes is essential; I still wish comps consisted of a maximum of sixteen tracks but the occasional boring one towards the end is excusable. Kent Records have, as always, packaged it with loving care: great sound and a super illustrated booklet. Now, if only someone would do the same and put out a quality ‘Best of’ to counteract all those poor quality CDs that litter bookshops and garages and do an artist of her magnitude a disservice.