Etta James

Publishing has a way of keeping you humble. Many years ago, after a scheduled show by her had been abruptly canceled, a club owner told me that Etta James had died. He neglected to mention that the two of them had just engaged in a financial dispute and of course being a newly minted music writer, I never thought to ask about any extenuating circumstances to this sad news. The fact that I took the word of a club owner tells you I desperately needed seasoning, but I digress…

I immediately flew into journalism school overdrive with my blazing scoop and cranked out a detailed, heartfelt, what I thought was an uncommonly eloquent obituary which promptly ran in the paper, dripping with all the sincerity that I’d so lovingly packed into every word.

For the next week I wished I had passed. My life was a living hell from the moment I walked through the doors of the building. Older reporters regarded it as sport, like bear–baiting or kitten drowning. Even the editors thought it was a gas to ring my extension and disguise their voices to sound like the very much alive Ms. James: “Dead, hell, I’m not dead, but if squirts like you keep writing shit like that, I’ll never get another gig!” Even the memory of it still sends a shiver up my spine. It’s the mistakes in publishing that stick with you most, not the triumphs. As the years have passed, every one who was there at the time, watching me type out my own mea culpa correction that ran the next week, has come to regard this as one of the great newspapering war stories they were ever privileged enough to watch implode. Unfortunately, more than twenty years later, Etta James has indeed died for real this time, of Leukemia at the age of 73. Funny enough, I knew she was very ill and I’d been contemplating my return to my most horrific blunder by listening to her records, savoring that voice and her pugnacious attitude. She and I met years after my obit boner, and thankfully she was gracious to a fault. In fact, she had trouble keeping a straight face the entire time we were together. Her belly laughs made me feel both better and worse. Seeing how appalled I still was, she leaned over and gave me squeeze when we parted. Always a world class R&B singer in my book, Etta became a fine human being on that day for forgiving my idiotic exuberance. Damn that J school training!

While her personal life has its well-documented down periods full of drugs and dramatic weight gains and losses, “Miss Peaches” as she was fondly known, will be best remembered musically for “At Last” the smooth ballad she recorded for Chess Records in 1961. When Beyonce sang the song at Barack Obama’s inaugural ball in January 2009, Etta, then 71, was none too pleased.

“Your President, the one with the big ears ... he had that woman singing my song. She gone get her ass whipped," she was quoted by and other websites as saying at a concert soon afterwards. James later said she was joking. Beyonce went onto play a character loosely based on James in the film, Cadillac Records.

Legend has it that the Los Angelino Jamesetta Hawkins was the illegitimate child of the pool playing legend Minnesota Fats. In the late 1950’s she worked with the R&B bandleader and impresario Johnny Otis who strangely enough died on Tuesday, January 17 at the age of 90. She was made into a star at the Chess label for which she recorded from 1960 to 1978. The two disc CD set The Essential Etta James is a decent survey of the Chess years though it could have included more from her 1978 late career (at Chess) rocked up studio masterpiece Etta Is Betta than Evah. As good as that record is—the LP copies have astonishing warmth and rhythmic snap—when it comes to the Chess years nothing really approaches Rocks The House. Recorded in front of a well–oiled crowd at Nashville’s New Era Club in September 1963, this is R&B at it’s grittiest. Her growled verses and booming choruses on tunes like her co–write, “Something’s Got a Hold On Me,” Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” and Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want To Make Love To You,” are classics of the genre. She also nails two Jimmy Reed tunes, “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” and “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby,” like no one else has before or since.

My personal favorite in the Etta James discography is Blues in the Night, Vol. 1 recorded for Fantasy Records in1986 with alto saxophone player Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and a band that included the great Shuggie Otis on guitar, Jack McDuff on B–3, Red Holloway on saxes and MC duties, Paul Humphrey on drums and Richard Reid on bass. Recorded in good not great sound at the now closed Marla’s Memory Lane Supper Club in South Central Los Angeles (Marla was Marla Gibbs who played Florence the sassy maid on The Jeffersons), James lets the band warm up the crowd before appearing and belting out five tunes and medley that includes “At Last.” But it’s the four tunes on the second side of the LP (tracks six through nine on the CD), that show what a singular talent she possessed. “I Just Wanna Make Love To You,” “Please Send Me Someone To Love,” “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)” and one of the hands down finest interpretation by anyone, at any time, in any genre of Errol Garner’s eternal, “Misty” make this set essential James. I still remember the day the promo came into the newsroom; back before I so zealously celebrated her non–passing. As overused as the term is in music, she was truly one of a kind. Her voice, from a whisper to a roar, and her feisty spirit will be sorely missed.

Glotz's picture

Mortality sucks.  Thanks for the great post. 

Travis.M's picture

This is definitely a sad loss for the music industry. Reading your story made me laugh and cry all at the same time. You are right, as writers it is our biggest mistakes that stick with us. I am glad you had the opportunity to meet with her and that she forgave you.