Monday, January 25, 2021

Celebrating Etta James

Today, 25 January, is the birthday of one of the truly great blues, R'n'B and soul singers, Etta James.  So I thought I’d pen a brief appreciation of this astonishing talent, who delivered a parade of major hits over the years, despite living a deeply troubled life.
Born in 1938, Etta never knew her father – though there have been unauthenticated rumours that it may have been the famous pool player Minnesota Fats – and her mother was reputedly just 14 when she was born, so that she spent much of her pre-teen years being looked after by her mother’s landlady, Lulu Rogers.
Little Miss Peaches gives it some welly
Even as a child in Los Angeles she became noted as a young gospel singer with a prodigiously big voice, and after moving to San Francisco in 1950 she began to gravitate towards popular music vocal groups – in tandem with a tendency towards teenage delinquency – until her group The Creolettes was signed by bandleader Johnny Otis in 1952, and they began touring with big name acts of the day, re-badged as The Peaches.
The Otis connection led to her first recording, with ‘Roll With Me, Henry’, released in 1955 and re-titled as ‘The Wallflower’ to disguise the sexual connotations of the lyric.  The song was a hit for James on the R’n’B charts, but re-titled again as ‘Dance With Me, Henry’ it became an even bigger crossover hit for white singer Georgia Gibbs – a source of some irritation to James, until she saw her royalties from Gibbs’ version.
Another dozen or so singles followed during the Fifties, on the Modern and Kent labels, such as ‘Good Rockin’ Daddy’ and the stop-time riffing ‘W-O-M-A-N’, and a few duets with Harvey Fuqua, including Willie Dixon’s ‘Spoonful’.  Then in 1960 she signed with Chess, where she stayed until the mid-Seventies, releasing albums mostly on subsidiaries Argo and Cadet, and racking up numerous Grammy nominations for her vocal performances – though without winning.  But if this was her heyday, it also coincided with her slide into decades of alcohol and drug abuse which often left her penniless, and even led to spells in prison.
One of the hallmarks of James’ singing is her versatility.  On the one hand there’s the rasp and power well suited to R’n’B which may have been the stimulus for producer Jerry Wexler to dub her “the undisputed earth mother”.  But on the other hand she could pull off a romantic ballad in the Great American Songbook vein such as ‘At Last!’, creating an enduring hit that reached number 2 on the Billboard R’n’B charts.  And she could also bring a singular aching quality to a torch song like the ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ – a classic that’s become ubiquitous in the blues world since its release in 1968.
You have to wonder though, how much better some of James’ output could have been during the Chess years.  In the early days with Leonard and Phil Chess producing, many of her songs were slathered in string arrangements, to good effect on a ballad like ‘At Last!’ to be sure, but of less
Still rockin' in later life
value elsewhere.  Why they didn't take more of a cue from the R'n'B of 'W-O-M-A-N' is a mystery.  And while the quality is evident on ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, at two and a half minutes the studio cut is little more than a vignette; a more savvy producer would surely have seen the potential in letting James stretch out and explore the emotions to the max.
Which is a shame, because her ability to communicate is obvious.  On her version of Muddy Waters’ ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ (another Willie Dixon composition), there may be jaunty strings up front, but the attack Etta brings as soon as she opens her mouth on the line “I don’t want you to be no slave” blows them into the background – and sets up the emphatic sexuality of the song.  It may have been made famous again by a Diet Coke TV commercial in the Nineties, but one senses that Etta James wouldn’t have been content to stand at a window drooling over the beefcake like the women in the ad – she’d have been out there getting his number, ready to make a booty call that night.  But it doesn’t come across like a clichéd “bad girl” either – just a real woman, asserting what she wants.  (Though over the years it seems her live act tended to push the boundaries rather more overtly.)
If the Sixties were the time of her hits, she still managed to produce strong albums thereafter, like 1974’s Come A Little Closer, when she was just about at rock bottom, The Right Time (1992), and Let’s Roll (2003) among others, and picking up a Grammy for her 1995 jazz album Mystery Lady: The Songs Of Billie Holliday.
James had continued to be hamstrung by alcohol abuse and heroin addiction until the Nineties, decimating her live work and eating up her income, and more ill health lay in store in the 2000s, before succumbing to leukaemia in 2012.  You probably couldn’t call it a life well lived, but Etta James was still one of the biggest stars in the blues firmament.

With credit to American Legends: The Life Of Etta James, a brief biography by Charles River Editors.
Also available, Rage To Survive: The Etta James Story, by Etta James and David Ritz.

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