I assume the first time I ever heard Etta James was when some oldies station played her hit “The Wallflower (Dance With Me Henry)” during the late 1960s. By the end of the decade she was sharing time on my turntable with the likes of The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin.
Jamesetta Hawkins (1938-2012) was a seminal music figure during the mid-1950s as she was a connector between classic rhythm & blues and rock and roll. While she never really crossed totally over to a rock format, her style and sound helped to clear the way for artists who would follow.
Her recording career began during 1954 and continued to near her death. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease during 2008 but managed to issue her final album, The Dreamer, in 2011.
If there is anything better than Etta James in the studio, it is Etta James on stage. She was a constant presence at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Eagle Rock Entertainment has now gathered 11 of her performances spanning four appearances at the festival, 1975-1993.
She always had a strong blues foundation and “Dust My Broom” (1975) and “Sugar on the Floor” (1989) returns her to those roots. The six performances, recorded July 15, 1993, have a cohesiveness that is somewhat missing from the second half of the release as they tend to fit together well. Songs such as “I Just Wanna Make Love to You,” “Come to Mama,” and “A Lover Is Forever” explores the gritty and passionate R&B side of her career.
The two most interesting tracks are from her 1975 appearance. The nine-minute “Respect Yourself” and the 10-minute “W.O.M.A.N.” find her at the height of her career and demonstrate how she could work a crowd for an extended period of time.
The album purports to present the best of her Montreux performances. Personally I would prefer to have the entire performances rather than just various songs from a number of sets and years. Whether any more of her material exists from these shows is unknown to me at this time, but the recording of older Montreux shows was spotty.
Still, it’s nice to have the debut of these songs as they present a fine introduction to her music. Etta James passed away January 20, 2012, and Live At Montreux: 1975-1993 is a statement that her like may not pass this way again.