Recording

Review: Etta James 'Heart & Soul: A Retrospective' (Universal)

When this four-disc box came out, just before the holidays, Etta James was still with us. Now the feeling you get listening to these truly spectacular vocal performances is a bit bittersweet, but it

When this four-disc box came out, just before the holidays, Etta James was still with us. Now the feeling you get listening to these truly spectacular vocal performances is a bit bittersweet, but it’s still one of the most delicious musical experiences known to man. Heart and Soul follows James’ career chronologically from her early blues sides to her peak soul performances on songs like “At Last,” and “Trust in Me” through more recent blues/funk songs and a few previously unreleased rarities.

Disc One opens with a couple of great jump blues tunes from 1955: “The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry)” and “Good Rockin’ Daddy,” where her vocal is just a little tentative.” You can hear the young James find her strength quickly, as by track four, “W-O-M-A-N,” she’s the mistress of her domain. Her version of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” includes some unfortunately lush strings among the punchy horns and frilly piano work, but James’ passion and swagger suck all the syrup out of the track. This disc also includes two of James’ very most memorable performances: “At Last” and “Trust in Me”; beyond beautiful.

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Disc Two straddles the line between early rock ’n’ roll and soul. “Pushover” (1962) has a girl-group vibe to it, but “Breaking Point” (1964) has a more Stax-like feel, with tight guitars and horn riffs and soulful B-3 parts. Other powerful up-tempo songs include hits “Tell Mama” and “Security.” And, of course, there are sweet ballads like the soaring “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be).” On Disc Three, James owns versions of Otis Redding’s “Mr. Pitiful” (now “Miss Pitiful”) and Wilson Pickett’s gorgeous “I Found a Love.” This disc includes some funky sounds, but also a return to some deep gospel-blues arrangements, such as a heartbreaking 1974 version of “St. Louis Blues” and a surprisingly beautiful cover of The Eagles’ “Take It to the Limit.”

The last disc in Heart & Soul comprises tracks recorded between 1987 and 2007. Of course, James’ voice lowered some by the end of a 50-plus-year career, and by the last song on the collection—a previously unreleased Rodney Crowell track, “Ashes by Now”—her vocal is being supported by more reverb, but she still sounds gorgeous. Etta James had all the passion, all the restraint, and all the natural talent to sing the hell out of any song on the planet, and this collection does the woman justice.

Producer: Andy McKaie. Remastering engineer: Erick Labson/Universal Mastering West (Los Angeles).

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