Two-time Grammy award winner, NARAS Lifetime Achievement and W.C. Handy Blues Foundation honoree, with a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, Etta James is an artist of genuinely legendary stature. As such, it's hardly surprising that her renditions of the twelve towering classics that comprise Blues To The Bone are both authentic and authoritative. What serves as an absolute revelation, however, is how Etta James has so triumphantly returned to the source of her own inspiration, the musical foundations of one of the most enduring and original careers in annals of modern music. Simply put, on Blues To The Bone, Etta has come full circle.
From Robert Johnson to Willie Dixon; Sonny Boy Williamson to Howlin' Wolf; Elmore James to Lightin' Hopkins and beyond, Blues To The Bone is a glorious homage to blues pioneers from an artist who is, herself, a pioneer.
It was, in fact, in recognition of her status as a living legend that the seeds that sprouted into Blues To The Bone were first planted.
"I got a call from Martin Scorsese last year," Etta explains, "and he asked me to perform on his TV special. At the same time I was being given a Lifetime Achievement Grammy. The trouble was," she adds with a characteristically throaty laugh, "they were both in New York and it was the middle of winter. That's just too cold for this lady."
While Scorsese would go on to oversee the acclaimed seven part PBS series The Blues without Etta's participation, the singer's curiosity was peaked by the project. "I made a point of watching it on TV and I was very excited by what I saw," she enthuses. "While a lot of that music was before my time, I had firsthand acquaintance with some those folks, being as I was on Chess Records in my earlier days, where many of them recorded. It was a piece of my own history."
That history began in the early Fifties when the Los Angeles-born singer was first discovered by Johnny Otis while still a teenager. It was the bandleader and talent scout who produced her first hit, the saucy "Dance With Me Henry," which immediately topped R&B charts nationwide. Her tenure with Chess Records began in 1960 and would continue for sixteen incredible years with a string of landmark hits including her signature version of "At Last," "All I Could Do Was Cry," "My Dearest Darling," "Trust In Me," "Something's Got A Hold On Me," "Tell Mama," "Fool That I Am" and "Don't Cry Baby." Together they comprised a run of charting records that ranked Etta third, just behind Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick, as the most prolific female R&B vocalist of her era.
Etta would continue to make definitive blues, soul and R&B music over the next four decades, including her acclaimed 2003 release, Let's Roll, and garnering a reputation as a world class live performer in the process.
It was the rich roots of her own history that prompted Etta to take another listen to the music that had served as the bedrock for her own distinctive song stylings. "I went to the store and bought all the old blues I could find," she continues. "What I found was so full of what life is all about: being born and dying; joy and sorrow; salvation and sin. And as I started reaching deeper I realized that most of the blues of that day was done by men. Women just didn't have the nerve. So I thought it was about time to show them what these songs might sound like coming from a whole different point of view." She nods emphatically. "My point of view."
Etta's criterion for selecting the dozen tracks of Blues To The Bone was simple: "I sang what I felt," she asserts. "That's where it begins and ends for me and these songs were the ones that touched me the deepest. It was like I was laying hold of some part of me that I didn't even know was there until I let it out."
Entering the studio last year, Etta gathered around her an intimate core of backing musicians, most notably the rhythm section of her sons Donto on drums and Sametto on bass. Also on hand for the historic sessions was guitarist Josh Sklair, a key player on Etta's 2003 album, Let's Roll, along with harmonica great Juke Logan.
"It was simple and to the point," is how Etta describes the process. "You can't fake this music. You might be a great singer or a great musician but, in the need, that's got nothing to do with it. It's how you connect to the songs and to the history behind them. This is music that sharecroppers sang when they were out in the fields working. That's a proud legacy and I'm proud to be a part of it."
It's pride that's in abundant evidence on every track of Blues To The Bone. Definitive versions of "Got My Mojo Working," "Lil' Red Rooster," "Dust My Broom," "Smokestack Lightning," and many others offer conclusive proof that the blues, in the hands of a master, is as resonant and revealing today as it was when it was first written and performed by the originators of this quintessential American art form. Simply put, on Blues To The Bone, Etta James has brought the blues to life for a whole new generation.
"When I finished the album, I sent a copy to Martin Scorsese," Etta concludes. "I wanted to thank him for reminding me, in a round about way, of how I got to where I am today. Without this music, I wouldn't have anything to sing. It's all begins here."