The Records You Didn't Know You Needed #4 Tell Mama   Etta James (Cadet LPS 802)

Etta James was in the heartbreak business. Other singers sold sweet dreams of love, romance, and sex, but Etta James sold pain and she had an endless supply. The pain started early. She never knew who her father was. When she was born, her mother who was fourteen, abandoned her, leaving her with a childless older couple. The woman, called “Mama Lu” by Etta, became her surrogate mother, and she was loved and spoiled by her and they lived happily. But not ever after, because all was not well and never would be. Periodically, her birth mother, Dorothy, who loved the night life, would appear and take the child away. It was always the same. They would live in squalor until a few weeks passed and then, bored and frustrated with parenthood, Dorothy would return Etta to Mama Lu. The pattern continued until Etta was twelve when Mama Lu died. Dorothy appeared, told Etta that she would be living with her now, and took her to San Francisco. There, Dorothy met her brother on a street corner, left Etta with him, and walked away.

In San Francisco, the pattern continued, and Etta was shuttled between her aunt and uncle and her mother, depending on her mother’s moods and the level of her aunt’s frustration with raising a teenager. Etta began running with gangs and at fourteen was put in juvenile detention for thirty days. The rest of the story could be a few quick sentences ending with “dead of a drug overdose” or “murdered”, but Etta James was different.

Despite the misfortunes that began piling up as soon as her birth, Etta James was one of the blessed, she had been gifted with extraordinary musical ability and the type of voice that comes along only a few times in a generation. She was a radio Gospel star at the age of seven. She began singing with an amateur female vocal group, was discovered by Johnny Otis and at sixteen recorded her song “Roll With Me Henry", which became one of the biggest R&B hits of 1955. She became a star, went on the road with the Johnny Otis Show, and had more hits. There’s nowhere safe to step in a snakepit. and she got ripped off by everyone; the record company didn’t pay royalties, Otis put his wife’s name on “Roll With Me Henry” and a white woman, Georgia Gibbs, covered it as “Dance With Me Henry.” It was such a sad, pallid, pathetic attempt that to call it an imitation would be to give it an undeserved dignity, but it made #1 Pop and sold over a million copies. Etta was singing for $10 a night when she watched Gibbs sing “Dance With Me Henry” on The Ed Sullivan Show.

By 1960, the hits had stopped coming and she had dropped from the top of the posters to near the bottom. Leonard Chess, co-owner with his brother of the successful Chess, Argo and Cadet record labels, was looking for black artists who could “crossover” and sell to the pop audience. He gave Etta a chance and soon she was again one of the biggest stars in Black Music and selling records to white people too. But all was not well and never would be. She began shooting heroin. The records started to sell less well and she began falling down the posters again. She started doing crimes for drug money. She was in and out of jail. She was in a long term, physically abusive relationship with a man who told her when he was drunk that he was God. No matter how low and desperate she got, she still was one of the greatest talents in Black Music and Leonard Chess never lost faith in her. He had his finger on the pulse of Soul/R&B and when the sound got harder, funkier, and more southern, he booked Etta to record at the FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals Alabama where Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Joe Tex had all recorded hits.

In August 1967, she arrived in Muscle Shoals, and in her words, “I had tons of confusion and anger stored up inside...and ready to blow the doors off the studio.” Tell Mama, the album she recorded in Muscle Shoals, includes twelve songs, credited to eleven different composers and the longest song lasts two minutes and thirty-four seconds. Obviously, it’s a compilation of attempts to get an AM radio hit, like all R&B LPs were in those pre What’s Going On?, Music Of My Mind, and Dance To The Music days. Some of the songs make too obvious their radio play ambitions and are a bit generic musically and have lyrics, that in 2021, range from silly to eyeroll, to grimace inducing. The record shouldn’t be a near masterpiece, but Etta James made it one. She idolized Billie Holiday and learned from her that the deepest sadness and greatest despair could be found in the silliest, most cheerfully inane songs. The pain’s in the singer, not the song. No one who listens to Tell Mama could think that Etta, singing with such terrible heartbroken rage is really singing about mothers-in-law and dancing on Saturday night.

The album gets off to a furious start with the title track. The drums pound out a dance beat for a bar, before the bass comes in playing a simple but perfect booty shaking proto funk groove backed up by one of the best 60s soul horn charts. For 12 bars we don’t even hear Etta but then she comes in absolutely wailing and laying down the law. She’s angry and you can almost see her finger pointing as she tells off some weak-kneed man who was foolish enough to think that he could be getting someone better than Etta. The way she sings:
“That girl you had didn’t have no sense
She wasn’t worth all the time you spent
She had her other man throw you outdoors
Now that same man is wearing your clothes”
in a tone dripping with contempt is perfect. Her vocal fury and passion are frightening. Don’t argue, just nod, this woman’s way past “had enough”. Etta commented later that she never really liked the song because she felt it cast her in a subservient “Earth Mother” role. She needn’t have worried.

The “for the ages” masterpiece, “I’d Rather Go Blind” is in 12/8 and for the first twelve bars straddles country and R&B vocal ballad styles, making the listener expect a lachrymose love song. Then Etta comes in and sings with utter despair yet angrily:
“Something told me it was over
When I saw you and her talking
Something deep down in my soul said “Cry girl”
and you know she’s telling you about more heartbreak than she or you can stand, with lots more to come and your eyes are already teary. The vocal….all words fail, I’ll just say, “Soul.” The guitar lick, the backup singers, the beautiful horn chart, the tempo, it’s all perfect but you don’t notice any of it, just Etta until you’ve heard the record a dozen times. When Leonard Chess first heard the tape, he started to cry and left the room. When he returned, he said, “Etta, it’s a mother… it’s a mother.” Leonard knew music.

“Steal Away”, a very secular rewrite of a Gospel song, written and recorded by Jimmy Hughes, was FAME’s first hit. Hughes, a talented singer with a sweet cry in his voice, did the song as a romantic plea for some sex, clandestine because her parents don’t approve. Etta James was much more than a talented singer and in Muscle Shoals, the emotional volcano in her was erupting. Her version is an angry insistent, “I need it” demand. She makes the central emotional phrase of the song not “Let’s steal away”, but “Don’t make me wait” which is not even in Hughes’ lyrics. It’s an astonishing vocal performance; barely contained passion at the beginning, some beautiful low notes during the bridge on “I know it’s wrong, it’s wrong needing you this way” and then, all dignity gone, screaming, “I need you” at the end over a gospel shouting horn riff. The desperate, naked need Etta is singing about has nothing to do with the frustrations of horny teenagers or even sex at all but everything about wanting what she should not want-dope and the wrong man.

Her cover of Otis Redding’s “Security”, dare I say, outdoes the original. The arrangement is hipper and in the battle of the bands, the FAME Swampers, some of whom later joined the band Traffic, are just tighter and rock harder than the Stax band. Etta’s vocal is fabulous with more aggression and bite than Otis’ which fits the lyric better. She even throws in a few of Otis’ trademark “Oooooh..oohs.” “My Mother in Law” is a silly song that Etta refuses to treat as a joke but sings with such total disdain and hostility that the tune could be offered as evidence in a hearing on a restraining order request by the subject.

“I’m Gonna Take What He’s Got,” a song that was sadly reflective of Etta’s domestic situation at the time, is also lyrically reminiscent of Billie Holiday’s “My Man” as she was undoubtedly aware and her vocal expresses the same despair and hopeless acceptance of cruel mistreatment that Billie’s did, but has, unfortunately, some lyrics that are simply unacceptable in 2021.

“It Hurts Me So Much” is a simple, bluesy song in 12/8 with plainspoken lyrics warning her man that he better be faithful. It’s not much to work with but Etta’s extraordinary vocal that stops just short of over the top, unhinged emotional fury, turns it into a raging primal cry about what her life was and would never be. The rest of the songs are mediocre but elevated by Etta’s incredible singing, the arrangements, and the superb “rocking in the pocket” playing of The Swampers.

Tell Mama is a great sounding record but it’s not an “audiophile’ sounding record. It was clearly mixed and mastered for radio and jukebox play; the top end is bright and a bit harsh and the bass is not very deep but mixed loud and very dynamic. Some of the cuts have an unrealistic stereo spread with the horns all in one channel and there’s not much studio “air’. The record makes up for all that with pure excitement. Rick Hall, owner of FAME, was a very good engineer and knew, maybe better than anyone, how to record 60s Soul. The musicians played together live in the studio and Hall’s recording and mix, by subtly emphasizing rhythmic interplay, captured that live, “this is gonna be the take” intensity.

All the instruments are clearly recorded but slightly “hot,” a little bright and edging toward, but never quite distorting. It’s a wild, insistent, barely controlled and ready to “blow the doors off” sound, and it’s the perfect sound for Etta and the mood she was in. Hall’s true mastery is shown by his recording of her. The voice is beautifully captured from the bottom to the top of her range as is the subtle dynamic shading of the words that she emphasizes. Etta is right in the center of the soundstage, pouring out hot and angry heartbreak and you can hear her breaths and the air in the booth she is singing in. Hall knew that the record was all about Etta and like the Hollywood directors of yore, he did everything in his power to show his leading lady at her best. Tell Mama is one of the very best sounding 60s Soul/R&B records with a nicely recorded band grooving hard behind a superb recording of one of greatest singers of the era at her fiery very best. Are there some audio flaws? Yes, but you won’t notice.

Original mono Cadet pressings of Tell Mama are cut hot and loud and will rock the house at your next dance party They’re pricey even for moderately clean copies but worth every penny if you can afford them. Stereo originals lack some bass punch and get off your butt and strut urgency but offer more Etta focus. They’re less pricey but still not cheap. The Original Chess Masters reissue from the 80s (CH9269 and mono because the annotation says, some of the tracks were originally mixed to mono turned into "fake stereo" on the stereo original, so the reissue producers chose the mono mix_ed.) sounds good but is less extended dynamically and tonally, very slightly thinner. It’s an excellent “bang for the buck” alternative. My advice is to stay away from the 4 Men With Beards reissue. I heard it and was very unimpressed.

Tom L's picture

Thanks for the in-depth review, very interesting background on Etta. I had also forgotten that some of the Swampers played on on Traffic’s 1973 “Shootout At The Fantasy Factory” and the live “On The Road”.

cdb3's picture

Thanks for the review. Coincidentally I was wanting to get this recently but found the original vinyl copies too expensive, but wondered about the Bear Family reissue which is widely available at a reasonable price. It's strange that it is claimed to be the first stereo issue since the original pressing, while Chess claim the original issue was reprocessed stereo. Any views on the current Bear Family pressing would be most helpful.

Michael Fremer's picture
The MCA mono reissue says that some of the mixes on the stereo tape were mono and some were actual stereo as the author says, and that on the original those tracks were "electronically reprocessed for stereo" (definition: "ruined"), so rather than use that tape, they chose to use the mono mix.
Andy1974's picture

I'm not sure often process involved, however I have bought vinyl electronically processed for stereo , i.e ruined. If the mixes on the original tape were a mix of stereo & mono, would a re-issue that used the original tapes (as apparently the Bear Family, Pallas pressing did) end up having a mix of mono & stereo, or a mix of stereo & 'ruined' tracks?

Andy1974's picture

it sounds great, even better with the volume turned up.

PeterPani's picture

just bought on discogs a mint 8-track cartridge on original Cadet for $12.
Never underestimate a well serviced 8-track player... (compared to a digital reissue on vinyl)

Tom L's picture

Perfect for playing in your 1967 Ford Falcon.

PeterPani's picture

below the office computer display. So the computer screen sits in the right heigth and the sound is big (as long as the cartridge works).

Benleo56's picture

For those who like jazz standards and fantastic accompanists, listen to Mystery Lady and Blue Gardenia. Each feature Cedar Walton as arranger and pianist and the rest of the band is also great. Walton's piano playing is fantastic and strikes a near perfect balance of not taking over but support Etta and the songs. I have not found a high quality record or file of these two albums but wish I could. If anyone knows of them share with other Etta fans. Enjoy these too.