More than a half-century after its release, At Last! remains one of the greatest records about loneliness ever made: a languid, jazz-inflected paean to (reluctantly) working it out on your own.
Anyone trying to reverse-engineer the particular way contemporary pop ballads are now sung— the careening melisma, the guttural, quasi-unscripted grunts, an apparently boundless capacity for emotion–needs only to consider a handful of tough, pioneering American singers: Bessie Smith, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Alberta Hunter, Aretha Franklin, and Etta James. This past Record Store Day, Portland's Jackpot Records reissued James's masterwork, At Last!, on limited edition vinyl, including the four bonus tracks which first appeared on a CD reissue in 1999. More than a half-century after its release, At Last! remains one of the greatest records about loneliness ever made: a languid, jazz-inflected paean to (reluctantly) working it out on your own.
James was born in 1938, in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, as Jamesetta Hawkins. She never knew her father, and her mother was only fourteen when she gave birth. James was raised by a series of foster parents, and came of age singing in the Echoes of Eden choir at St. Paul's Baptist church. Stories of her childhood— including the ones she recounts herself in Rage to Survive, her tellingly titled autobiography—are grisly. One of her foster parents, a loutish man called Sarge, used to drag her from bed in the middle of the night and force her, via brutal and humiliating beatings, to sing for a cabal of his drunk poker cronies. In the early 1950s, she joined a girl group (the Creolettes; later the Peaches) and met the R&B producer Johnny Otis, who suggested she re-name herself–transmuting "Jamesetta" into "Etta James"–and eventually helped the Peaches book a spot opening for Little Richard on a national tour. James left the group to sign with Chess Records, and began collaborating with Harvey Fuqua, then of the Moonglows and later a crucial, visionary producer for Motown. At Last!, her debut album, was released by Argo, Chess's jazz imprint, in the fall of 1961.
If there's anything anachronistic about At Last!, it's how plainly vulnerable James sounds while performing these songs. Insomuch as it's possible to distill any one theme from the last couple decades of pop music, it's the presentation of—and insistence upon—self-empowerment as an infallible path toward joy. Those sorts of affirmations can induce a wild ecstasy in the moment—I AM THE BEST! NO ONE CAN TOUCH ME! SUCK A DICK, JERKS!—but eventually, one has to worry about whether those same notions are not, in fact, a deeply odious and toxic force in the world. It can't be great for whole generations to come of age hollering self-aggrandizing anthems that never quite acknowledge the most gratifying and dangerous thing a human being can actually do: courageously make room for another person in her heart.
So when James loses her man, and sings a verse like this one, from "Stormy Weather"—"Life is bare, gloom and mis'ry everywhere / Stormy weather, stormy weather / And I just can't get my poor self together / I'm weary all of the time, the time / So weary all of the time"—it sounds fearless. Most of At Last! concerns itself with unmitigated heartache. James isn't the sort of singer capable of or interested in couching true anguish in anything prettier or more reassuring, and there is a glorious synchronicity between the frankness of her vocal and the heaviness of the lyrics. James was a professional, and a true expert—her control is astounding; she bites off each note like she's taking a chunk out of an apple—but there's no moment on At Last! that feels explicitly or distractingly performative. There's something almost punctured in her breath, like a person who has been struck in the chest, effectively felled by pain.
James opines, repeatedly and without guile, her inability to find and keep the right person for her to love. There are moments where she thinks that she had it, maybe, for a minute (like on "Anything to Say You're Mine," in which she waits for a letter from her lover, hoping their correspondence might finally reveal his devotion to her), and then moments in which she is convinced she has already lost, and will continue losing – that the ecstatic, unspooling, true, true love she watches other people share and celebrate will elude her forever.
The latter idea reaches a kind of brutal apotheosis on "Sunday Kind of Love," in which James sings, over a spare, barely-tinkling piano melody (interrupted, on occasion, by rising swells of strings), about what she wants but can't ever seem to get: an earnest communion that lasts long past Saturday night, "for all my life to have and to hold." James isn't necessarily having a tough time attracting men to her bedroom, but she can't seem to land a caring or truly unafraid partner. Periodically, James lets out a little "Uh!" between lines of the verse. Those little vocal punctuations are commonplace now, but when James looses one, even the quickest, most under-thought "Uh!" communicates tremendous certainty. She knows what she wants, even (especially) as it remains just out of her reach.
What's maybe most satisfying about At Last! is the record's title track, arguably the single greatest unburdening ever laid to tape. It plays like a person stumbling into a hotel room and simultaneously dropping all of her bags on the floor. In an album of lost and mangled love songs, in which relief and fulfillment begin to seem truly impossible ("I can't love nobody unless I'm loving you," James announces in the bonus track "If I Can't Have You," a duet she co-wrote with Fuqua), here is a moment of extraordinary deliverance. Finally, James finds her man: a person who doesn't get spooked, doesn't waver, doesn't leave her crumpled somewhere, alone and pining. "My lonely days are over, and life is like a song," she sings, her voice buoyant. The irony – that her own songs, in fact, express considerable pain – is deep and heavy.
Beyoncé famously performed "At Last" at Barack Obama's first inaugural ball, while he and Michelle shared their first dance. The performance was poignant for obvious reasons—there was, at last, a black president in the White House—but James quickly called bullshit on it ("She ain't mine… I can't stand Beyoncé," is how James expressed her annoyance during a Seattle concert, shortly after the ball aired on television). There is a sense, among singers of a certain era—who came of age as performers in a pre-Civil Rights America—of ferociously protecting what they have made or claimed as their own, usually against staggering odds (Aretha Franklin still insists on being paid up-front and in cash, and keeps her purse firmly wedged under her arm as she strolls onstage). James didn't write "At Last"; it was written in 1941 by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, for a musical film called Orchestra Wives—but she animated it, made it feel real. And there isn't a single moment on At Last! that doesn't feel unmistakably her own, and forever.