I first heard At Last on a B. B. King duet CD. The song was marvelous on so many levels; words, tune, idea conveyed, just wonderful. Over the next few years I discovered different versions by a variety of singers. Then one night, while watching TV, I heard the penultimate version of the song on a TV ad.
The commercial was for Jaguar. A sleek, shiny Jag moved through wet streets and dark places while some lady who knew a helluva lot about soul was giving chills to everyone listening.
The next day I began a quest to identify the performer and buy the track. In the times before Google one had to actually visit record stores or ask around. After nearly a year, the version of At Last that defined the song was still a mystery to me.
That summer, as usual, I attended the Riverbend Music Festival in Chattanooga, and heard B. B. King in front of nearly 100,000 fans. A couple of hours before he performed, the great Etta James played on one of the alternate stages, She started with my favorite, Tell Mama, and was halfway through her second song when a thunderstorm chased her off the stage. It was the only time I experienced the great lady live.
The next day I purchased an early collection of hers to get a copy of Tell Mama. I noticed she included At Last on this CD. When the opening strings began, I created chill bumps the size of golf balls on my arms. It was the Jaguar version. I can’t explain why I didn’t already know this little tidbit or why I wasn’t able to come in contact with someone who did. At Last was Etta’s biggest hit. But at last the song was mine.
Around that time Sweet Etta began a sort of resurgence, releasing several CDs of updated music in the same old style, some with her son playing lead guitar. I became her biggest fan and still include her later songs on most playlists. If you’ve ever heard Love’s Been Rough on Me, or If I Had Any Pride Left, you know what I mean. She surfaced again recently for the wrong reason. Etta James was critically ill.
When Elvis died, and Michael Jackson, I didn’t get caught up in the mass hysteria that swept the country; can’t say why. But when David Ruffin passed on a felt a sadness I was unable to shake for weeks. If you remember the early Temptations’ work, or ever heard Walk Away From Love, you know what I mean.
When I saw the news earlier today, that Etta James died, the same unshakable sadness gripped me. I went looking for my copy of At Last and Tell Mama and Love’s Been Rough on Me. I can’t say when I’ll be better.
I’m not sure the music industry has ever been a pure business based on talent alone. I am sure the current version is controlled by unimaginative people who use music formulas and hype to keep making mundane crap and coercing the buying public into purchasing this same mundane crap. Little really good music escapes. Maybe the loss of a really great and unique artist makes us realize how barren the landscape remains.
If Heaven does in fact exist, I hope it features a music hall with perfect acoustics, comfortable seats, and artists who get younger each time they perform: Where singers and musicians are appreciated for their talent instead of their popularity. A place with civilized, attentive crowds who also get golf ball sized chill bumps when David Ruffin or Etta James opens their heart and lets the feeling exit through their vocal chords.
A place where great singers step on stage, feel the appreciation, smile and think to themselves:
Etta James – At Last