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Speakers Corner / Argo - LPS-4003 - 180 Gram Virgin Vinyl
Limited Edition - AAA 100% Analogue - Pressed at Pallas Germany
Featured in Michael Fremer's Heavy Rotation in the August 2011 Issue of Stereophile!
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time - Rated 119/500!
It’s as though the title "At Last" is trying to dupe one into believing that Etta James had experienced all the ups and downs that life could offer her by the year 1961: performing on great stages under the influence of drugs, her exodus from the scene, appalling jobs in seedy clubs and dives, and a brilliant comeback with an earthy voice in Montreux followed by a tour of the USA with the Rolling Stones.
In truth, "At Last" should be seen as the potent motto of a debut LP by a vocalist who had just emerged from her beginnings as a gospel singer, and had now recorded promising single songs. Two of the numbers, the bittersweet "All I Could Do Was Cry" and the lounge-worthy "Trust In Me", promptly landed in both the R & B and Pop charts. But the more carefree, candy rock ’n’ roll ("Tough Mary"), the weird and languishing song ("Girl Of My Dreams") and the stuff of finest ballads ("Stormy Weather") are all found in this highly diversified mainstream mix. An unobtrusive background of gentle strings and chorus, so typical of the times, sensitively enhances the carefully chosen numbers, somewhere between Rhythm & Blues, Soul, and Standard Jazz. The result is a timeless, highly accomplished and variegated LP from the beginning of Etta James’s lengthy discography.
"James was a self-described "juvenile delinquent" when R&B band boss Johnny Otis took her under his wing and made her a precociously sexual teenage star with 1954's "Roll With Me, Henry." Seven years later, James bloomed into a mature, fiery interpreter on this spellbinding LP for Argo, a Chess subsidiary. Against Riley Hampton's meaty orchestrations, James wraps her husky voice around strange bedfellows such as "Stormy Weather" and Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love to You," injecting them with rock & roll heart.
She hit the pop and R&B charts with three of the songs here and created a new vocal model: the crossover diva."
Before you drop the needle on the groove, look at the sleeve. It is a perfect duplicate. No modern ephemera, no barcodes, no modern label logos, no modern dates. Aesthetically, this is a “perfect” reissue. And listening to the recording proves equally fascinating as you can hear a real tussle going on with the remastering.
Speakers Corner obviously wanted to retain as much of the atmosphere and flavor of the original recording as possible, keeping James’ signature strength, power, and “bad girl” delivery. You can effortlessly hear James’ rasping, guttural power on the remaster. At the same time, however, you can also hear the German imprint wishing to push the technical boundaries as much as possible. And the label accomplishes this goal with a vastly improved soundstage as well as a richer, broader vocal. James really flowers here, her emotional texture conveying a deep understanding of the lyrics and a close relationship to the song itself.
But the real magic happens when the audiophile imprint’s two aims clash. Sparks fly; you can clearly hear James play with the microphone. She moves around it like Cassius Clay dancing around his opponent in his prime. Listen to her stand away from the mic, giving some distance as she strikes a high note and before moving back in to tackle a softer line. Then, she surprises you. She darts in and hits you with a massive, volcanic eruption—a primeval shout that literally whacks the needle into the red and slams the signal to the ceiling. Even the Speakers Corner remaster can’t cope, and this is the point where the mastering engineer must think, “OK, that’s it. This is the line. This is where we stop.” Because, to process and develop the signal any further would take away James’ passion.
And that’s what we have here: Pure, unadulterated passion. There’s no covering, no skin, no protection. It’s bare, vulnerable. It could shrivel up in front of you or blast you in a moment’s notice. Etta unleashed. – Paul Rigby Toneaudio
1. Anything To Say You're Mine
2. My Dearest Darling
3. Trust In Me
4. Sunday Kind Of Love
5. Tough Mary
1. I Just Want To Make Love To You
2. At Last
3. All I Could Do Was Cry
4. Stormy Weather
5. Girl Of My Dreams (rendered as Boy Of My Dreams)
Recorded January-October 1960.
Are your records completely analogue?
Yes! This we guarantee!
As a matter of principle, only analogue masters are used, and the necessary cutting delay is also analogue. All our cutting engineers use only Neumann cutting consoles, and these too are analogue. The only exception is where a recording has been made – either partly or entirely – using digital technology, but we do not have such items in our catalogue at the present time
Are your records cut from the original masters?
In our re-releases it is our aim to faithfully reproduce the original intentions of the musicians and recording engineers which, however, could not be realised at the time due to technical limitations. Faithfulness to the original is our top priority, not the interpretation of the original: there is no such thing as a “Speakers Corner Sound”. Naturally, the best results are obtained when the original master is used. Therefore we always try to locate these and use them for cutting. Should this not be possible, – because the original tape is defective or has disappeared, for example – we do accept a first-generation copy. But this remains an absolute exception for us.
Who cuts the records?
In order to obtain the most faithful reproduction of the original, we have the lacquers cut on the spot, by engineers who, on the whole, have been dealing with such tapes for many years. Some are even cut by the very same engineer who cut the original lacquers of the first release. Over the years the following engineers have been and still are working for us: Tony Hawkins, Willem Makkee, Kevin Gray, Maarten de Boer, Scott Hull, and Ray Staff, to name but a few.
At the beginning of the ‘90s, in the early days of audiophile vinyl re-releases, the reissue policy was fairly straightforward. Companies such as DCC Compact Classics, Mobile Fidelity, Classic Records and others, including of course Speakers Corner, all maintained a mutual, unwritten code of ethics: we would manufacture records sourced only from analogue tapes.
Vinyl’s newfound popularity has led many other companies to jump on the bandwagon in the hope of securing a corner of the market. Very often they are not so ethical and use every imaginable source from which to master: CDs, LPs, digital files and even MP3s.
Even some who do use an analogue tape source employ a digital delay line, a misguided ’80s and ‘90s digital technology that replaces the analogue preview head originally used to “tell” the cutter head in advance what was about to happen musically, so it could adjust the groove “pitch” (the distance between the grooves) to make room for wide dynamic swings and large low frequency excursions. Over time analogue preview heads became more rare and thus expensive.
So while the low bit rate (less resolution than a 16 bit CD) digital delay line is less expensive and easier to use than an analogue “preview head”, its use, ironically, results in lacquers cut from the low bit rate digital signal instead of from the analogue source!
Speakers Corner wishes to make clear that it produces lacquers using only original master tapes and an entirely analogue cutting system. New metal stampers used to press records are produced from that lacquer. The only exceptions are when existing metal parts are superior to new ones that might be cut, which includes our release of “Elvis is Back”, which was cut by Stan Ricker or several titles from our Philips Classics series, where were cut in the 1990s using original master tapes by Willem Makkee at the Emil Berliner Studios. In those cases we used only the original “mother” to produce new stampers.
In addition, we admit to having one digital recording in our catalogue: Alan Parsons’ “Eye in the Sky”, which was recorded digitally but mixed to analogue tape that we used to cut lacquers.
In closing, we want to insure our loyal customers that, with but a few exceptions as noted, our releases are “AAA”— analogue tape, an all analogue cutting system, and newly cut lacquers.