Listen Up: Wednesday, June 12, 2003
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Etta James

Let’s Roll (Private Music)

The marketing tag “Queen of Soul” may have stuck to Aretha Franklin, but Etta James is queen of all that and more. The new album Let’s Roll, self-produced at the 67-year-old singer’s home studio with her longtime ensemble The Roots Band, proves that James remains the premier interpretive vocalist in that lush American swampland where blues-jazz-gospel-country vibes interweave. It sounds like the cantankerous James had a helluva time: her booming leonine voice, coarsened by a half-century of performance but regal as ever, playfully shapes itself to each mood. “The Blues is My Business” is an infectious three-minute blues rocker shot through with David Mathews’ rolling-barrel piano and fuzzy organ thunderclaps; riding the rhythm with funky bemusement, James portrays herself as a rapacious entrepreneur eager to profit from the world’s misery: “Ah’m open fuh bizniss / In yo neighba-hood / The blooz is my bizniss / And bizness is good.” Josh Sklair’s boingy-boingy hoodoo banjo offers humorous commentary on the driving “Strongest Weakness,” in which James testifies to kicking every addiction but romantic disappointment. For Delbert McClinton’s “Wayward Saints of Memphis,” James lets loose a raspy back-of-the-throat purr and stretches it across the sinister shuffle of bassist Sametto James and drummer Donto James (her grown sons). “You might believe / I’ve taken leave / Of my senses,” Etta rumbles, as she tries to make us believe in psychic visions of Tennessee street minstrels from the past. If you kept the lush guitar-picking arrangements of the country ballad “A Change is Gonna Do Me Good” but replaced James with a young white singer, it could be a huge hit on contemporary country stations; her mastery of the twangy barroom weeper remains intact despite the snub. Private Music is pushing Let’s Roll as Etta’s rock ’n’ roll album. In a statement that sums up her remarkable career, she’s content simply to declare the music as “really American.”


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