Etta James: At Last
Etta James (vocals)
At Last! (Chess 12017)
Etta James (vocals),
Riley Hampton Orchestra.
Composed by Mack Gordon & Harry Warren.
Recorded: Chicago, IL, January-October 1960
Rating: 96/100 (learn more)
Having portrayed Etta James in the film Cadillac Records, singer/actress Beyoncé was chosen to deliver Etta's signature song for the President and First Lady's first dance at the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball in D.C. during the festivities of late January 2009. Miss James was publicly miffed about not being asked to perform "At Last" herself, but was she justified? Both vocalists do a fine job with a song that has been covered by many others. Beyoncé, however, is currently a hot pop-culture commodity, so the reasons for her appearance are obvious. Still, play each version back to back, and more soul drips out of Etta James's original.
James is properly described as Old School, and this track makes that quality immediately apparent. What she offers that few others can match is a brassy, rough-hewn persona that captivates listeners with its guttural yet properly intoned presentation. She cites Johnny "Guitar" Watson as a major influence on her singing style, and it shows. Listen closely and you'll hear her reaching deep inside for notes that visit the lowest (contralto) depths of her range, essentially sounding male in delivery. James's voice then smoothly transitions into its high register, displaying stylistic dexterity that ranks alongside such jazz greats as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.
Reviewer: Marcus Singletary