"This is one of the best albums I've ever done, because I went into it with the idea of getting back to my rock 'n' roll roots. My first hit was 'Roll with Me Henry,' so that sound is kind of where it all started. Over the years, I've done jazz and blues and pop - all kinds of things -- but I've always considered myself a rock 'n' roll singer. This album feels like getting back to who I am and that's a great feeling."
So says Etta James on the inception and inspiration of Let's Roll, her riveting new Private Music release and a stunning return to form from an artist who, virtually single-handedly, defined the role of women in the realm of rock 'n' roll.
Yet, as much as the twelve tracks of Let's Roll, produced by Etta herself, mirror a lifetime of pioneering musical innovation, there is also a decidedly contemporary thrust to the proceedings. "I wanted 'roll' in the title because that's one half of what this music does," Etta explains with a laugh. "But, at the same time, I got the idea from what Todd Beamer said in that airplane on September 11th. I felt he was the real hero of that day and I used his phrase to do honor to him."
A tribute to a fallen hero or an homage to a musical style she helped to invent, Let's Roll is most of all a powerful new chapter in the epic musical saga of Etta James. With songs especially selected by the artist, the album boasts new music from an impressive array of emerging and established songwriters, including Delbert McClinton, Bekka Bramlett, Gary Nicholson, Kevin Bowe and others. Assisting in the production were Etta's sons -- and Roots Band members in good standing -- Donto and Sametto along with guitarist Josh Sklair, making full use of the state-of-the-art facilities at Etta's own Fort Athens Studio, where Let's Roll was recorded late last year.
The eagerly awaited follow-up to last year's Grammy-nominated and widely acclaimed live album, Burnin' Down The House, Let's Roll reflects the fresh and formidable new energy that has infused Etta's music over the past few years. As a vocalist who has already made an inestimable contribution to the state of the musical art, Etta James seems to just be getting warmed up for the second half of a career that has already spanned most of the modern rock 'n' roll era.
Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, Etta's influence on singers reaches across generations - from Diana Ross to Janis Joplin to Bonnie Raitt and beyond. It was bandleader/talent scout Johnny Otis who discovered her in San Francisco in 1954 and immediately whisked her into the studio to record "Roll with Me Henry," a number she'd written as an answer to the Midnighters' "Work with Me Annie." The saucy song shot to No. 1 on Billboard's R&B chart and was covered by Georgia Gibbs in a version titled "Dance with Me Henry" that also topped the pop charts.
Signed with Chess Records in 1960, Etta would stay with the groundbreaking label for the next 16 epochal years. Like many aspiring young African-American artists at the time, Etta was drawn to R&B, even in the face of her mother's stern disapproval. "Don't listen to that gutbucket blues," Etta recalls her mom saying, yet the fledgling singer planted her professional feet firmly in the blues and soul camp, adding to these influences an abiding respect for jazz and pop that would surface throughout her prolific career.
From such 60's hits as "At Last," (among the most enduring of all recorded pop performances) "All I Could Do Was Cry," "My Dearest Darling," "Trust In Me," "Something's Got A Hold On Me," and "Tell Mama," "Fool That I Am," and "Don't Cry Baby" Etta achieved an incredible string of charting records, ranking third, just behind Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick as the most prolific female R&B hitmaker of her era.
"A singer of unprecedented power and appeal" was how Rolling Stone described her on the eve of her 1993 induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. Two years later she garnered her first Grammy, after nine nominations, for her Private Music debut album, Mystery Lady: The Songs Of Billie Holiday, a collection that introduced her extraordinary vocal prowess to a new generation of fans. It also served to underscore the affectionate title legendary record producer Jerry Wexler had once bestowed on her: "Matriarch of the Blues," and the title stuck.
It's an honorific to which, after the release of Let's Roll, might be added "Rock 'n' Roll Royalty." Etta James is most definitely the reigning queen of a musical style that she had made completely her own for going on six decades. From "Roll with Me Henry" to Let's Roll, the genius of Etta James has come full circle.
In 2003, Etta will receive a NARAS Lifetime Achievement award by the Recording Academy's National Trustees, in recognition of her outstanding creative contributions. Previous honorees have included such iconic artists Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke and others. Additionally, Etta will receive a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame commemorating her extraordinary recording career in a special ceremony to be held April 18th. Capping this season of honors, Etta has also been named as a nominee for The Blues Foundations' 24th Annual W.C. Handy Awards, set for May 22nd in Memphis. Once again, Burnin' Down The House has received a nomination, this time for Soul Blues Album of the Year, while the artist herself has been named in the Soul Female Artist of the Year category.