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Etta James: Blues to the Bone

Now, when Etta James sinks her teeth into Robert Johnson, you know there’s going to be genuine pain. And blood, and bone, and sinew and sweat. It’s been nearly a half-century since “At Last,” and the queen of the blues is still wiping the floor with anybody-male or female-who dares contemplate ascension. Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” (a comparatively tepid version of which is included on Threadgill’s disc) is at the center of the righteous 66-year-old’s latest, Blues to the Bone (RCA). It is just one of a dozen nods from one blues giant to another as James pays tribute to John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf and other seminal figures with scorching renditions of such classics as “Got My Mojo Working,” “Little Red Rooster,” “Don’t Tear My Clothes” and “Crawlin’ King Snake.” Though scheduling conflicts made it impossible for James to participate in director Martin Scorsese’s sensational blues history for PBS, she did watch the seven-part series and was impressed enough to send Scorsese an advance copy of Blues to the Bone. He responded by writing the liner notes, wherein he accurately, articulately observes, “When you listen to her sing the songs on this album-hard songs each and every one of them-you understand that the voice belongs to someone who’s passed through the eye of a storm and come out standing. Tall.”

Originally Published