Etta James – Tell Mama

Etta James – Tell Mama
Released August, 1968

“Tell Mama” is the eighth album by blues singer Etta James. It was written and released on Chess Records in the August of 1967, and reached #21 on the US Billboard R&B Charts. “Tell Mama” was written at the height of Etta’s heroin addiction, which I don’t think, luckily enough, affected her style at all, apart from starting to move away from R&B and heading more towards soul. Etta had her start in a girl band called The Peaches in 1955 and the success of their song ‘Dance With Me Henry’ landed them a support gig for Little Richard, when Etta was just 18 years old. She left the group after the tour and signed as a solo act with the Chess Records label, Argo, which was where, in 1961, she released what came to be her signature song, ‘At Last’.

Etta was prolific in the 60s, releasing five albums between her debut album in 61, and “Tell Mama” in 68. Before “Tell Mama”, her career had started to fade and she took some time by herself, only to return to FAME Studios at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, joining Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding as artists who have recorded there. The move to FAME appeared to turn Etta’s lack of continued success around, with the single ‘Tell Mama’ reaching number ten on the Billboard R&B charts, and number 23 on the Billboard Pop Charts. Etta also had success with her version of Otis Redding’s ‘Security’, making the Top 20 on the R&B Singles Chart. The B-side to ‘Tell Mama’ was ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, which has apparently become a bit of an R&B classic, despite not originally being a hit. Unfortunately, after this album, Etta didn’t enjoy a lot of continues success. She ventured into funk and rock, trying to prolong her career, even opening for the Rolling Stones, and playing at the Montreal Jazz Festival. She left Chess records and didn’t record again for a long time as she fought drug and alcohol addictions. Etta returned to the limelight in the 80s (though during this time she was arrested for forgery and possession of heroin), and even continued with some success after the turn of the century. She was touring until 2010, when she succumbed to dementia and leukaemia, passing away in January this year.

“Tell Mama” had some ripper tracks, and some just ok tracks. I really enjoyed the opening and title track. It’s quite a significant way to start an album that’s main goal is to project you back in to fame. Big use of trumpets and saxophones made for a massive sound, and Ella almost screamed some of the “Tell Mama!”s. ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, for me is just ok. It’s super soulful and features some very understated, but amazing bass playing. (Again! Every week there’s amazing musicians! I hope it never ends…), but nothing really happens. It doesn’t go anywhere, and just kind of fades into obscurity… But then, every track on the album does that! ‘Watch Dog’ is a very up tempo and musically fun song, though it doesn’t sound like Etta thought it was very fun… There are a lot of musical dynamics, which I reckon is pretty important, especially if your aim is keeping my interest. ‘The Love of My Man’ falls in to the same boat as ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’… I kind of just zone out. There’s no real point of difference, except for the frantic guitar licks that frequent the song. ‘The Same Rope’ conflicts me. You all know how I feel about organs, and yet I still like this song… The backing vocals in the chorus are a big plus for me in this track, I don’t know what it is, but I really dig their sound. Etta’s version of Redding’s ‘Security’ is probably one of the better songs on the album. There isn’t realty a weak aspect of it. It’s dynamic, the vocal is strong, the musicians are excellent. It’s just a shame it only goes for three minutes. Now. ‘My Mother In Law’. I see no reason for this song, apart from just purely needing to vent. Etta definitely makes her point with “Somebody’s gotta go, (it won’t be me) it’s either her or me (it won’t be me)”. Musically it’s pretty good, just seems like a pointless song…

The best thing this album had going for it was that it was only half an hour long. Which works well for me, because if I don’t enjoy an album, I can lose interest very quick. “Tell Mama” was a lovely album with a few strong points, but just a bit too lacklustre for me. Although Elvis is a pretty hard act to follow… Maybe one or two tracks will stay on my iPod, probably not.

I had a hard time listening to “Tell Mama”, and finding something to say about it was even harder. I just couldn’t connect with Etta James. Ok, I’ll give credit where it’s due, and James certainly delivers a ballsy and boisterous collection of soulful blues classics and love songs. But honestly, I felt as though there were only a couple of dynamics on this album, James seems to just go hard at every song like a bull at a gate, and there just wasn’t enough conviction in her tone for me. If you compare her to other soul singers of her time, say someone like Aretha, Etta James just pales in comparison, there’s not enough sensuality or vulnerability conveyed in her delivery. As you may have guessed by now, I quickly got bored with “Tell Mama” as it kind of felt like one song after the other was James just going through the motions and not really ‘feeling’ her way through the songs. To me it just felt like she didn’t connect to the music and maybe didn’t relate to the songs. My favourite track of the album, was ‘Mother in Law’; I think 99.9% of women could relate to the quirky,  lyrics of this song, and only Etta James would have the guts to sing about something the average woman only dreams of bitching about, and in a musical tribute to boot! Having said all of the above negative points, I think I could find a future use for this album. I’m no stranger to late nights spent drinking with friends, and it could probably find its way into those kind of occasions, as background music, as there are some good grooves to be had. It was just too two-dimensional for me to be anything more than a one night stand.

Okay, so this lady can sing; what an amazing voice. She’s got the balls to belt it out and the ability to know when to reign it in. I can hear her impact on other artists as diverse as the young (and still black) Michael Jackson, Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse. A strange thing happened while I spent time with this album; which each subsequent listen I liked it a little less. At first, I was stirred by the energy of the music and marvelled at Etta’s range and control, especially on ‘Love of My Man’. The musicianship of the band is also top-notch, but the first sign that my interest was waning was the realisation that I was more interested in those magic bass lines than anything else. Some of the songs just weren’t grabbing me. ‘Watch Dog’ comes off like a substandard ‘Hound Dog’ and the old-fashioned ‘My Mother In-Law’ sounds like it belongs in the fifties. The lyrics of ‘I’m Gonna Take What He’s Got’ make my skin crawl, particularly “He beat on me/He cheat on me/He’s mean to me/Ooooh, but he can be so sweet to me”. ‘Security’ just feels like a variation on the theme of Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’, not surprisingly also co-written by Redding. All of the tracks fade out too! Etta’s voice just begs for a tight stab from the band before she brings it home to the song’s conclusion. There are some great moments though, particularly ‘Tell Mama’ with its horn and bass parts reminding me of Wilson Pickett’s ‘In The Midnight Hour’. Etta’s yearning on the wondrous ‘Steal Away’ jumps out of the speakers and the great closer ‘Just a Little Bit’ echoes this desire with the best bass line on the record. All up, I feel that this album is a bit hit-and-miss.

One of the issues I’ve had with a lot of the female lead albums in the 60s is the lyrics. I understand it was the 60s and equality wasn’t really the done thing. And I know that most artists didn’t write their own music and that task was primarily left to the men. As result of this, what I’m hearing so much is these young women singing songs about their men and how they miss them and love them and only want to be with them. But what we are hearing is a male’s version of that, and well, it’s just a little bit skewed. I’m not sure if we’ve got it any righter these days (don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me) but it doesn’t change the fact I find it quite irritating. And it’s a shame that this is the week we listen to Etta James as it is also the same week I discovered new band on the scene Alabama Shakes. What interests me most is that the music Alabama Shakes make is so steeped in the 60s music we’ve listened to thus far. Their debut album “Boys & Girls” is something like the album I image James would have made if she had the benefit of the 44 years of change that have passed since “Tell Mama” was recorded. Vocally we get the gutsiness and rawness of Etta James on “Tell Mama”, but lyrically it just doesn’t convey the depth of a woman who clearly had a troubled life and a story to tell. It’s hard to believe her conviction in the lyrics when she clearly doesn’t believe it herself. It leaves us with an album that whilst great musically, is often one dimensional and lacking. And it’s a shame because there are hints of greatness in that voice and I understand why she is such an idol to so many singers, but “Tell Mama” felt lacklustre and left me wanting so much more.

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