She’s a grittier Aretha Franklin and a sexier Mahalia Jackson (not to mention an older, wiser, and meaner Beyoncé), but perhaps it’s unfair to compare the great Etta James to anyone but herself. After all, when “At Last” came out in 1961, there was no real popular precedent for the blend of rock, pop, blues, and gospel (later tagged “soul”) that James put out on Chess Records alongside legends like Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry.
Chess Records, a pioneering force in blues, rock, and R&B based in Chicago, was eventually surpassed in the shifting genre of soul music by hit-makers like Stax Records in Memphis and, of course, Motown Records in Detroit, whose weapons of dominance included Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. It didn’t help that James’ personal career suffered in the mid-60s as she descended into a life of addiction, emerging as a full-fledged performer only periodically throughout the rest of her life. Not only that, but Leonard Chess, the producer behind many of the company’s hits, passed away in the late 60s. James stayed with the company until 1975, but hits on the level of her early-60s career were rare.
For all her brazen toughness, sexually frank performances, and raunchy covers of classics that seem written for her voice, it’s a beautiful twist of irony that “At Last,” a wedding-friendly oldie, has become her permanent signature.