You can dig Peaches as a catalogue of rhythm-and-blues styles from the Fifties to the present. You can enjoy it as the most varied and satisfying “greatest hits” collection of the year. You can stand off and admire it as a monument to a soulful queen of the blues who just won’t quit. Better yet, put the record on and listen to the woman sing.
Compared to Etta James, Aretha is an ornamentalist. While Aretha decorates and elaborates each song to fit her own personality. Etta simply becomes the song. She brings such authority to her performances, hits every note with such precision, places each phrase so carefully, her versions of songs become more than “interpretations”; they are definitive. An Etta James record is like the Cheops Pyramid: perfect in shape, seamless on the surface, each great block/phrase exactly in place, worn by time but undaunted, with power and endless mystery deep in its recesses. What’s more, you can dance to it.
My first Etta James record was “Crazy Feeling,” a 78 on the Modern label. She was a commanding presence even then, and by the mid-to-late Fifties, when she cut the earliest sides on Peaches, she was beyond compare. Black audiences dug her from the first, and if you grew up within range of a righteous R&B radio station you probably heard a bunch of her hits without connecting them to one another. It’s a long way from “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” and “Next Door to the Blues” with their vintage Ray Charles overtones, to tunes like “Pushover” and “Pay Back,” which could’ve been recorded by Little Eva. But Peaches takes us even further right on up to the Muscle Shoals muscle of “Losers Weepers” and “Tell Mama,” capping a long and consistently brilliant career. Why haven’t there been lavish anniversary albums, triumphant European tours, tributes on the Ed Sullivan show? Why is Etta James still performing in ghetto clubs and one-nighter packages? Could it be ’cause she’s got so much soul, and it shows?
At least Chess has done right by Etta; no psychedelic dogshit, just excellent tunes, sympathetic production, musicians who aren’t intimidated by her force and feeling. On certain of her sides, all the elements coalesced alchemically, and masterpieces resulted. Both “Tell Mama” and its incredible, neglected flip side, “I’d Rather Go Blind,” are in this category. Then there’s “Two Sides (To Every Story),” the apotheosis of everything that was true and good in the era of “Do the Locomotion” and “Da Doo Ron Ron.” An earlier era yielded “Stop the Wedding” and “All I Could Do Was Cry,” with their funky piano arpeggios and biting guitar, and for people who like the rough-and-ready-vocal —over —satin —strings effect, there are “Sunday Kind of Love” and “Lovin’ You More Every Day.” The rest of the tunes on this two-record set are merely outta-sight.
The only possible objection to Peaches is its programming. The tunes are arranged without regard for chronology, and indeed they aren’t dated at all, so that any feeling for Etta’s developing style has to come from the idioms of the various songs, the playing of the accompanying musicians, inference, and pale memory. Nor are the tunes arranged according to any other evident criteria; slow tunes follow one another again and again, and a Muscle Shoals soul ballad leads disconcertingly into a ten-year-old production number. But who can complain? The music is all there, it’s all superb, and Etta James, who lit up so many of those southern radio nights with Old Crow under the stars, is shining bright, right up there with Bessie, Billie, and Aretha. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a spectacularly tragic demise to make her, in album annotator Richie Yorke’s words, “as familiar a name in every household as Acapulco Gold.” She has really paid her dues, and Peaches tells the whole story.