Once, when I was fourteen, I bought a copy of “My Dearest Darling” by Etta James, a record I’d heard as an oldie on a local station. The song haunted me, and I played it obsessively, day in and day out. “My Dearest Darling” had a special sort of emotional pull; it was demanding and soulful, yet somehow gentler and more vulnerable than even teenage stuff by the Vandellas or the Marvelettes. I played the 45 so much it drove my mother crazy. Finally, in exasperation, she threw the record away. But I got back at her. I bought a whole album of Etta James songs and played it often and loud. Etta James was somebody special.
Few pop artists are so deserving of continued, widespread success as Etta James. But despite a string of R&B hits in the Sixties, her career in this decade has fallen victim to bad luck and mishandling. Chess, her longtime record company, fell into decline and went bankrupt. It was bought by All Platinum, a tiny independent not really equipped to handle either the catalog or the artist roster. With the exception of a brief spurt in 1974 (on the heels of the jagged, hypnotic “All the Way Down”), James has been out of sight and earshot for too long.
As a singer, Etta James has few peers. Her lower register carries the impact of a wrecking ball, and at times she sounds like a throwback to the era of husky-voiced blues shouters. She can be gruff and seething, with a menacing growl that explodes a groove song like her classic hit, “Tell Mama.” But she also has a sure sense of when to holler and when to purr, and some of her best work has been on torch ballads where she reveals a keen sense of low-key dynamics. For all her vocal girth, Etta James is a nimble singer.
Jerry Wexler seemed a wise choice to produce such an important comeback album. Wexler is hardly an intrusive producer, and his virtues include a good ear for material and a feel for the old verities. His past work with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke is legend. But Deep in the Night, despite some qualified successes, falls short. Like the Richard Perry-produced Martha Reeves LP of a few years back, Deep in the Night is too self-conscious and strained in its attempt at making an “intelligent” soul album for FM/AOR audiences.
Intelligence is what permeated a collection like Etta James’ Peaches, a wonderful double set that included most of her best Chess work. The cover versions (“At Last”) were adept and completely made over, and the originals (“I’d Rather Go Blind”) were transcendent. On Deep in the Night, there are no new songs. “I’d Rather Go Blind” is redone and retitled as “Blind Girl,” though the reason for its inclusion is hard to fathom since the 1967 version scarcely needed improving. Here the song is stretched to five minutes and sapped of its groove and energy. Well-intentioned covers abound: Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed,” the Eagles’ “Take It to the Limit,” “Lovesick Blues,” “Piece of My Heart.” Some work better than others, but too often the arrangements are thick and cumbersome, lacking the special economy and sparkle needed to hold interest on a ballad-centered album. To be fair, there are nice moments: the riveting spoken intro to the title song, a spirited version of Dorothy Love Coates’ “Strange Man” (now there’s a great choice of material) and the bridge on “Piece of My Heart.”
Jerry Wexler could still make a great Etta James record. Go to Muscle Shoals, dig up guitarist Travis Wammack and don’t forget the important elements: grit, grease and fun. That would be a work of art.