A powerhouse soul/blues/R&B performer "with a voice that could take you to hell or take you to heaven" (according to Keith Richards), Etta James needs no introduction. Starting her career in the 1950s, she survived decades through thick and thin, troubled relationships and lifestyles, and changing musical trends to become one of the most well-loved women of R&B and the Queen of Soul/Blues/R&B/what-have-you. She recorded for many record labels over the years, but her recordings for Chicago-based Chess Records, including such classics as "Tell Mama" and "At Last", are arguably her most definitive.
In 1976, Etta James recorded and released her final LP for the Chess Record label, titled Etta Is Betta Than Evvah ('A' for effort on the creative title, not so much the spelling!). By this time, Chess was a shell of its former self. Leonard and Phil Chess, founders of the label, had sold the company to General Recorded Tape (GRT) (which later sold the label to All Platinum Records) in the late '60s (with Leonard passing away shortly thereafter), and the company gradually wound down in terms of the quantity (and some would say the quality) of their recorded output. To make matters worse, the musical climate was not healthy for the blues and old-school R&B; although many blues artists continued to work into the 1970s (albeit with increasing difficulty), it was not until artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray emerged in the 1980s that the blues would see a revival as a commercial entity. That being said, there were still some great early '70s Chess records. Was Etta is Betta Than Evvah one of them?
Etta is Betta Than Evvah consists of 10 tracks, 9 of which were newly recorded in 1975-1976 (curiously, the other was a reprise of a song that was originally included on Etta's self-titled Chess release from just three years earlier). All of the songs are moulded in the contemporary R&B sound du jour, with slick quasi-disco rhythms, funky guitars and/or clavinets, popping basses, and frequent horn and string punctuations. It was likely arranged just so in an effort to reestablish Etta James as a contemporary R&B/funk diva (much like how Chess originally revived her career as a balladeer and soul artist in the early '60s, after her initial heyday in the '50s). The result of this is that a lot of the performances on the record have a slightly mechanical feel, providing great dance music but ultimately feeling deficient in the soulful rawness that distinguished Etta's earlier efforts for the label. Similarly, Etta James sounds a bit tentative in certain parts of this album (although she looks like she's having a good time on the cover).
Still, Etta is Betta Than Evvah is not without its merits. The album begins with a rewrite of a song that she originally recorded in the '50s for Modern Records, this time titled "Woman (Shake Your Booty)". As she states in her autobiography, the tune was subtly rewritten to include more of a contemporary message reflecting women's empowerment issues than the original, and it works wonderfully in the context of the new arrangement. The interplay between the trendy-sounding clarinet and skittish guitars is compelling. In the same autobiography, Etta admitted that the words of "I've Been a Fool" and "Blinded By Love" reflected her personal life at that time; the latter is an especially interesting mix of art and commerce, where she produced a great, danceable tune with confessional lyrics that reflected where she was at in her life at that point. Etta brings back some of the passion of her earlier Chess platters to King Floyd's "Groove Me", an outstanding funk tune that works well in this setting (she later rerecorded it for her final album, The Dreamer, in 2011). A similar grit graces "Jump Into Love", although the male background vocals seem off-putting, awkward, and unnecessary. My favourite song of the album, however, is "Leave Your Hat On", a slow-burner that features a sultry vocal from Etta (along with her trademark growl, double-tracked in places to provide a nifty texture) and some terrific ensemble playing by the band. The remaining songs on the record are listenable but not particularly memorable.
The CD reissue by Kent Records adds 10 bonus tracks, an assortment of Etta's other early '70s Chess recordings. They rang from good to excellent (in some cases, I prefer them to the original album's tracks). My favourite among these is "Feeling Uneasy", originally tracked for her 1974 platter Come a Little Closer; it's a short but very sweet showcase for Etta's humming, moaning, and generally wordless vocalizing that actually manages to convey an uneasy feeling, which reflected how she felt during this era. The closing bonus track, "Lovin' Arms", is also a wonderful ballad with excellent instrumentation by several top session musicians from that era (including Cornell Dupree, Steve Gadd, and Richard Tee).
Unlike the boastful title, on Etta is Betta Than Evvah, Etta was not quite better than ever (probably more "average" than anything else), but it was still a fairly dignified way to end her tenure with Chess, with some good songs and competent performances gracing the final LP. She would bounce back later in the '70s and beyond with improved recordings.
Tune in to CJSR's Señor Blues every other Saturday to hear tracks from Etta is Betta Than Evvah and other similarly underrated, rare, or lesser known blues genes as part of the semi-regular "Blues That Got Away" segment.