Because of her blues-based comeback in the '90s, Etta James is usually thought of by the general public as a blues singer, but there's a good deal more to the picture than that, and this well-chosen and stunningly varied four-disc anthology, the first extensive survey of her entire career from 1955 to 2008, makes clear that Etta James has long been one of the best singers of her generation -- in any style. In many ways James resembles a female Ray Charles
in her unerring ability to tackle (and sometimes combine) all of the strands of American popular music, from rock & roll to R&B, blues, country, gospel, jazz, and pure pop and soul, while still maintaining a distinct feel and sound that is all her own, and she has done this throughout a five-decade career that is astounding for its consistency. There's so much to marvel at here, beginning with 1955's "The Wallflower" (an answer song to Hank Ballard
's "Roll with Me Annie") and ending with a previously unreleased version of Rodney Crowell
's "Ashes by Now" from 2008. In between, this set shows off the range of this impressive artist, who tackles everything from orchestral pop (her signature "At Last" from 1960), torch songs ("Don't Cry Baby" from 1961), gospel ("Something's Got a Hold on Me" from 1962), and heart-wrenching soul ("Tell Mama" and "I'd Rather Go Blind," both from 1967) to the unclassifiable (Randy Newman
's gothic and lusty "Let's Burn Down the Cornfield" from 1974). It's all here, drawn from James' incredible recording career on the Modern, Argo, Chess, Warner Bros., Fantasy, Island, Private Music, and RCA Victor imprints. Yeah, Etta James can sing the blues. She can sing anything she wants to, and there's plenty of proof of that in this welcome (and long overdue) retrospective.