Leonard Chess dispatched Etta James to Muscle Shoals in 1967, and the move paid off with one of her best and most soul-searing Cadet albums. Produced by Rick Hall, the resultant album boasted a relentlessly driving title cut, the moving soul ballad "I'd Rather Go Blind," and sizzling covers of Otis Redding's "Security" and Jimmy Hughes' "Don't Lose Your Good Thing," and a pair of fine Don Covay copyrights. The skin-tight session aces at Fame Studios really did themselves proud behind Miss Peaches.
It is no exaggeration to call Little Walter the Jimi Hendrix of the electric harp: he redefined what the instrument was and what it could do, pushing the instrument so far into the future that his music still sounds modern decades after it was recorded. Little Walter wasn't the first musician to amplify the harmonica but he arguably was the first to make the harp sound electric, twisting twitching, vibrant runs out of his instrument; nearly stealing the show from Muddy Waters on his earliest Chess recordings; and so impressing Leonard Chess that he made Muddy keep Walter as his harpist even after Waters broke up his band. Chess also made Walter into his studio's house harpist and started to release Little Walter solo records with the instrumental "Juke" in 1952. "Juke" became a smash hit and turned Little Walter into a star, making him a steady presence on the '50s R&B charts.
After spending a few years in limbo after scoring her first R&B hits "Dance With Me, Henry" and "Good Rocking Daddy," Etta James returned to the spotlight in 1961 with her first Chess release, At Last. James made both the R&B and pop charts with the album's title cut, "All I Could Do Was Cry," and "Trust in Me." What makes At Last a great album is not only the solid hits it contains, but also the strong variety of material throughout. James expertly handles jazz standards like "Stormy Weather" and "A Sunday Kind of Love," as well as Willie Dixon's blues classic "I Just Want to Make Love to You." James demonstrates her keen facility on the title track in particular, as she easily moves from powerful blues shouting to more subtle, airy phrasing; her Ruth Brown-inspired, bad-girl growl only adds to the intensity. James would go on to even greater success with later hits like "Tell Mama," but on At Last one hears the singer at her peak in a swinging and varied program of blues, R&B, and jazz standards.
This 45-song, two-disc collection is subtitled "two decades of killer fretwork", and never was a set so aptly described. Chess Records was the home to seemingly every hot guitar player in the Chicago area, and many of them make their appearance here. Besides the usual label guitar hotshots (Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, Lowell Fulson, Earl Hooker, Otis Rush, Robert Nighthawk, Little Milton), space is given to sideman work from legends like Hubert Sumlin and Robert Jr. Lockwood and great one-offs by lesser-known artists like Jody Williams, Danny Overbea, Eddie Burns, Joe Hill Louis, Morris Pejoe, Lafayette Thomas and others. It seems as if everyone recorded for Chess at one time or another, also explaining the inclusion of tracks by John Lee Hooker, Albert King, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Lonnie Brooks, Hound Dog Taylor and Elmore James. If electric blues guitar's your thing, then look no further than this fine two-disc compilation.