Roadhouse album review: “Etta James – The Montreux Years” a live showpiece for her incomparable music

In my last post, I wrote about a new album series from BMG Records and the Montreux Jazz Festival, and I described the upcoming release (Sept. 17) of “Muddy Waters – Live at Montreux.” It’s an excellent look at the live music of one of the greatest blues performers.

But there are two of these magnificent sets already out there to gratify your ears and satisfy your soul, from Montreux performances by Etta James and Nina Simone. Today I’ll take a look at the James concerts.

Etta James – “Etta James: The Montreux Years” (BMG Records, June 2021)

“As you know, I am a blues singer,” Etta James told a Montreux Jazz Festival audience at the beginning of one of her songs, vibrantly captured on this journey through her festival years, covering six concert performances from 1975-1993. The ’75 festival was her first European performance, and is included in its entirety on one of the two-disc set.

She was indeed a powerful singer of blues, but James was also one of the most exciting and enduring musical voices in the second half of the 20th century. She could, and did, sing R&B, blues, soul, pop, funk, or any combination that the occasion demanded. And she did it with ease. The music always seemed to just flow out of her.

James came to music early in a tumultuous life. She was born Jamesetta Hawkins to her 14-year-old mother, Dorothy, and believed that pool player Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone, was her father.

She released her first record in 1955, when she was 17. It was “The Wallflower,” with the title changed from “Roll With Me, Henry,” apparently to protect innocent young teenage minds, or possibly, people named Henry. It was one of several “answer songs” to  Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ raucously salacious 1954 hit, “Work with Me Annie.” Etta even got credit as a co-writer, with Johnny Otis, who helped to discover her, and Ballard.

By the way, these songs, plus the Midnighters’ songbook and Otis’s, were all great, enthusiastic music, honking and jiving its way into the early days of rock ‘n’ roll.

But Etta was on her way. Just five years later, her first album, “At Last,” debuted, along with a hint of the wide range of musical styles she would go on to master. There was also the title song, which would become her signature song, plus some blues, jazz and pop.

Sadly, her musical career was marred by drug and legal issues in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, but her music grew into an essential part of the American songbook.

The tracks on this Montreux album reflect that status with strong performances from 1975 to 1993. There are tough blues, painfully soulful moments, and striking pop ballads — all done live, with no chance to overdub, or fix any mistakes in the studio.

It’s all simply outstanding music, and should help Etta James find her place among the great women of American music.

Here’s the track list on the CD from multiple years:

Breakin’ Up Somebody’s Home (1990), I Got the Will (1989), A Lover Is Forever (1993), Damn Your Eyes (1989), Tell Mama (1977), Running and Hiding Blues (1990), Something’s Got a Hold On Me (1989), Beware (1993), Come to Mama (1990), Medley: At Last / Trust in Me / Sunday Kind of Love (1989), I Sing the Blues for You (1993), Baby What You Want Me to Do (1978 Encore)

Here’s the track list from the CD covering the 1975 show:

Respect Yourself, Drown in My Own Tears, W-O-M-A-N, Dust My Broom, I’d Rather Go Blind, All the Way Down, Baby What Do You Want Me to Do, Rock Me Baby, Stormy Monday

Here’s a video of Etta James at the 1975 Montreux festival, singing “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Great stuff!

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