Album of the Day — June 1
Etta James — Tell Mama
Etta James — Tell Mama
1968 is considered to be a year of both turmoil and change. Six months in, 2020 has the turmoil part down, let’s hope we can get the change part together by December 31.
Much of the music in 1968 was as complex as the social and cultural strife that it reflected.
After a four-year hiatus and with the encouragement of Chess Records head Leonard Chess, Etta James stepped into the churning Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals Alabama.
Under the tutelage of producer Rick Hall, she released Tell Mama, her first album to enter the Billboard 200 chart since 1964, and with the title track, “Tell Mama”, she got her highest Billboard Hot 100 single — reaching #23.
At FAME, James worked with a bevy of studio musicians, including the core of Rick Hall’s studio masters, known as The Swampers including:
Spooner Oldham on keyboards
Barry Beckett on organ
David Hall on bass
Jimmy Johnson on guitar
By 1969, Hall and The Swampers had split, but for these late 1967 recordings of Tell Mama (and many others), it’s clear that the creative engine entrenched at FAME Studios was firing on all cylinders.
Of course, there is the title track, which charted, but it’s that song’s b-side “I’d Rather Go Blind” which would help secure James’ legacy. Along with “At Last”, “I’d Rather Go Blind” would become two of the most recognized and revered songs in R&B history … and “I’d Rather Go Blind” was a b-side!
There are the usual lyrical tropes on Tell Mama and some are tough to listen to … but even the thickest among us, know those tropes still ring true.
There are sadness and heartache songs on Tell Mama and “Mother-in-Law” brings a brief moment of levity to the album.
What sets the album apart — and made Muscle Shoals such a recording destination for many artists at the time — was that Hall bridged the chasm between Phil Spector’s pop “Wall of Sound” and the evolutionary of sound or rock music.
Musical tastes can often be divided by race. That’s less true today, but it was true in 1968. Hall’s genius was that for artists that recorded at FAME, he was able to blur that line. It wasn’t that race was eliminated, it’s just that it wasn’t relevant. What mattered was the music.
The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, in the documentary Muscle Shoals admitted skepticism to the all-white Swampers: “We just didn’t expect them to be as funky, as greasy as they were.”
Hall and co. were able to capture what would be R&B but sounded like rock & roll and what was rock & roll but sounded like R&B and so on. The cross-pollination of genres — a cross-fire hurricane — sped up the evolution of the artists. It didn’t go much further beyond the art though.
That expedited artistic evolution helped transcend race in music in 1968 but didn’t extend beyond that … as we can still bear witness to in 2020, society still suffers from the same divisiveness.
That said, I don’t think it was the intention of The Swampers, Rick Hall or Etta James to change society. From what very little I know, and from what I can hear, the goal was just to make damn good music. And Tell Mama does just that … tenfold.
Don’t be mistaken or misled, Rick Hall and The Swampers were all part of it, but Etta James is driving this bus. This is her album, 110%, Hall, and co. are vessels helping to accentuate her talent.
Tell Mama has a mix of songs and a variety of songwriters, including a cover of the recently lost Otis Reddings’ “Security”. At twelve songs, the album clocks in at just under 30 minutes.
And Tell Mama is some of the best 30 minutes you’ll spend listening to music.
Critics have long regarded Tell Mama as a watershed moment in Etta James’ career, calling it “one of her best and most soul-searing.”
Tell Mama was released on April 18, 1968, exactly two weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The songs don’t reflect the impact of King’s murder, but the title of the album does.
When times are shitty and people are hurting, as so many were in 1968 (and in 2020) what you want is someone with outstretched arms with a slight tilt of the head as if to say: Tell Mama.
Etta James gave us an album and offered us that. It’s still around if you want to listen to it … and you should.
Go ahead, Tell Mama.