There’s plenty of bigger, badder collections of Etta James’ genre-bending blues growl out there, but if all you want is the cream of the crop from Miss Peaches then this collection is what you’re looking for. Her Best gathers up the essential moments from her Chess Records period, her most fertile, dynamic, and impactful era, into twenty songs of grit, bluesy turmoil, and triumph.
It all begins and ends with that voice. A thing that tremendous elasticity and power, at once capable of tenderly caressing as in the opening swoon of “At Last” as it is of storming in biblical might as in the climax of “Two Sides to Every Story.” James was never one for merely showing off her vocal dynamics just for the hell of it, no, she wanted to communicate the emotional truth of whatever she was singing.
She can bounce back and forth between guttural, nearly obscene carnality on some songs then do a completely believable turnaround on her finessed readings of ballads. Her instrument is one that defies easy classification. Is she blues, jazz, pop, soul, gospel, or rock? To answer to that question is yes, she’s all of it. She often makes the backup singers supporting her sound like automatons merely going through the motions in comparison to the emotional exorcism she’s giving.
Much of the first half of Her Best is occupied by selections from At Last! Not a surprising choice as that remains a definitive album and her greatest recording to date. “A Sunday Kind of Love,” “All I Could Do Is Cry,” and the yearning duet with Harvey Fuqua, “If I Can’t Have You,” haven’t lost their ability to grab hold of you after all these decades. Her Best is a great starting point, but make sure you go back and listen to all of At Last!
But it’s after the well-known recordings that the surprises pop-up, including a live cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby, What Do You Want Me to Do” that bursts with energy. The template for her career was set with her first album, but the permutations of it are quite pleasing. After all, James’ shocking touches of vulnerability and innocence make a song like “Pushover” just as believable as the inviting “Tell Mama” or the rapturous “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.”
For Chess’ 50th anniversary, they released several of these collections: Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, just to name a few. It’s a reminder that James is just as essential and as much of a powerhouse artist as any of those guys. The opening notes of “At Last” have toppled many a strong singer, and if that isn’t enough to knock you out, Her Best has nineteen more reasons for that argument.
DOWNLOAD: “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” “Fool That I Am,” “Tell Mama”