RIP Etta James, Genius of Chicago Crossover Soul

The Los Angeles native marked a major turn for Chicago’s Chess Records, bringing the city’s blues-jazz-pop crossover sound to the biggest audience it had ever reached.

Etta James, the R&B singer who was Chess Records’ first female star, passed away today at 73. Dave Hoekstra of the Sun-Times has a good obit that places her in her proper role in Chicago music history:

“At Last” was also a crucial record in the lexicon of Chess as it moved the label from a blues imprint (Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf) to pop.

Chicago’s Club De Lisa saxophonist Riley Hampton had been recruited to create the lush arrangements with string sections that had never been used at Chess. The label hit the jackpot, counterpointing Hampton’s sweet pop strings with Mrs. James’ direct blues-jazz style.

Hampton’s an interesting story in his own right—born in 1918 in Little Rock, he played in Pittsburgh bands and came to Chicago after the war, and was at the Club De Lisa by 1946. By 1955, he was doing arrangements for VeeJay along with Chicago jazz legend Von Freeman, and in 1959 he became the house bandleader, not long before Leonard Chess brought him on:

With James, Chess launched its new era of recording soul with a beefed-up production, arranging, and writing staff. James’s output during her first several years at the company was primarily string-laden ballads, many of them old standards. The healthy tension generated between the pop-like arrangements of Riley Hampton and the gospel/blues vocals of James produced an early type of soul heavy on melodrama. From 1960 through 1962 most of her songs were of this type and most were top-ten hits in the r&b market, thus launching James as a major soul artist.

For another sample of Hampton’s style, here’s Walter Jackson, another Chicago R&B singer, doing the standard “Moonlight in Vermont.”

Hampton was friends with Curtis Mayfield (they collaborated on a bunch of Chicago soul songs), and Hampton’s sound is responsible for much of the brilliance of Mayfield’s debut, Curtis: “They took Henry Mancini to the streets, mixed in Mayfield’s Chicago soul and shook well.” But Hampton wasn’t so much bringing in Mancini as the arranging aesthetic he’d brought to “At Last” nine years before, the same year Breakfast At Tiffany’s premiered with Mancini’s score.

There’s some wonderful music that preceded James in Chicago’s conflation of jazz and R&B. While poking around, thanks to the remarkable music-history site “The Red Saunders Research Foundation,” I came across a group variously known as the Five Blazes and the Four Blazes—the second band to sign to the Aristocrat label, which shortly after became Chess. Basically, they were a jazz quartet/quintet and a jazz/doo-wop combo in one:

Speaking of blending styles, after Etta James returned from a period of severe substance abuse—in 1978, she told Rolling Stone that when she was hospitalized in 1973, she was “the sickest person ever to have detoxified off of anything in the history of Los Angeles County"—she did another crossover album, this time with Jerry Wexler. 1978’s Deep in the Night wasn’t a popular hit, but she did do the world the favor of making the Eagles sound good:

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