I confess, I took Etta James for granted. I mean it seems like she’d always been around. Like the Moon. Like the Ocean. Or maybe like that monument out on Easter Island. Then comes the sad news: she’d passed away.
The news of her death wasn’t a complete shock. She’d been ill and had been hospitalized for awhile. I guess that I just subconsciously assumed that she’d pull through. Then I remember the old adage we’ve all heard by now about what happens when one ‘assumes’.
Still, I am a little brokenhearted.
I first hear Etta James way back in the 60’s, when she’s wailing away with that distinctive, throaty voice of hers on WAKE, WAOK or maybe it was 790 Quixie in Dixie. She’s tellin’ anyone who’d listen Something’s Got a Hold On Me and “… oh, oh, oh, you know it must be love….”
At the time, John F. Kennedy is President; America is still innocent and reveling in what would become an all too brief Camelot; the Braves still play in Milwaukee and tallest building around is the eleven stories Fulton National Bank near Atlanta’s Five Points. At the time I’m twelve years old and not yet smitten with the first of many teenage crushes. In fact, at twelve, I have no clue as to what Miss Etta (no one’s thought of the ‘Ms.’ appellation yet) is really talking about when she refers to ‘this thing called love’. I did reckon though if love could make you feel half as good as Etta sounded, then whatever love really was, it was surely something that was …well, ‘alright’. Maybe it might even be something fun and fine to have around. Someday anyway.
No one-hit wonder, Etta would belt out a two or three fists-full of terrific songs over the radio airwaves between then and lately. ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, ‘Dance With Me, Henry’,’ Tell Mama’, ‘All I Could Do Was Cry, I Just Want to Make Love To You, ‘The Fool that I Am’, ‘Don’t Cry Baby’, and Trust In Me were the best remembered. But there were others too; and though the rest may be less well remembered, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts and more than enough for her to hold her own –and someone else’s too– on any ‘Oldies but Goodies’ jaunt.
Undoubtedly Ms. James is most identified with the iconic ‘At Last’, a song originally recorded in 1960. It is an homage to ‘love finally requited.’ It’s also an anthem of sorts for (knights-and-) ladies-in-waiting, waiting to exhale, who need to wait no longer.
Just looking (or better, “listening to”) the above song titles, you conclude there was nothing subtle about James or her music. When she sang, she shouted and pleaded and told you in no uncertain terms, what was on her mind– and in her heart. And if you had sense enough to pay attention, maybe you’d learn what might damn well ought to be in your heart too. Etta was no wallflower offstage either. One will recall a brief dustup of a few years back when she threatened to “…beat Beyonce’s ass for stealing my song.”
In retrospect, it was always hard to figure out exactly what kind of singer Etta James was. Blues? Rock n Roll? Rhythm and Blues? Jazz? Truth was: musically, Etta skated about easily and freely. She was all of them. Etta sang whatever she damn well pleased. The smart thing, I decided long ago was that when it came to Etta James, the best thing was not to analyze. Rather, just rock your head back and enjoy the vocal ride. And the feeling.
Whatever the final verdict on her style was, she clearly did right by all of them, as six Grammy’s, 17 Blues Music Awards and induction in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 will attest. (One wonders what took those people at the Cleveland hall so long.)
If Etta James was larger than life, perhaps she was also ‘sadder than,’ too. Whether it’s a kind of cosmic cause or even cosmic consequence, tumult and pain are often the parasitic partners of talent and fame. It was that way from the beginning for the child born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938. She led a rough and tumble existence, even as she bolted into the world as offspring of a black, fourteen year old teenage mother and a white father, she said was famed pool shark, Minnesota Fats.
A few years back, she reflected on how she tried, in her younger years, to, time and time again, throw her career away. She commented on how her role model as a teenager was Billie Holiday. She often mused if Lady Day sang ‘that way’ because of her own involvement with heroin and other drugs or whether she was just that good naturally. Whether she was trying on purpose or not to fashion her own Lady Sings the Blues existence James, as a young adult, gets hooked on heroin, cocaine and other demons too. She goes through detox and rehab any number of times and even does a stint in jail, largely as a result of doing the things that junkies do to support their habit. Biographers have also suggested her life was also constant kind of Freudian search for recognition from the record industry as well as her father, whom she met once–in 1987.
Through it all though, Miss Etta makes beautiful music and survives till just five days short of her 73rd birthday. (Maybe there is something to living three score and ten, if one believes in that kind of thing.)
The last time I laid eyes on Ms. Etta was a couple of years back. She was about to give a brief performance on the Tavis Smiley Show on PBS. As she is sitting across from Smiley, involved in the obligatory pre-song interview, you can tell Etta is not quite herself although she acquits herself quite well a bit later when she performs onstage. Even for someone who must’ve been over seventy and has had all those eyes upon her over the years, the voice is still almost as remarkable as it once was. Later I learn the something not quite right is that she’s been diagnosed with leukemia, Alzheimer’s and dementia. And then there’s also the rumor about some “messy-ness” amongst James family members regarding her estate upon her said ‘soon to be’ demise. ( You wonder what gets into family members sometimes.)
I have a musician friend, whose name is ‘Ace’. He is one of the great blues sidemen (saxophone) in the South. Ace is at once wise, funny and is constantly offering me free albeit unsolicited insights on life that I swear, must only be known to musicians. Awhile back Ace opines that blues singers and comedians got great benefit from living chaotic and frenzied lives. “Kid,” he said “it’s hard to sing the blues when you’re doin’ alright [i.e. everything is coming up roses in your life].” On the surface, what Ace said was kind of funny but, who knows, maybe there is something to it. Maybe that’s why Etta sang so great.
Since her death last Friday, I’ve wondered what things would have been like if Etta had caught a break early in life… if she had a better circumstances at home and a few advantages that she obviously didn’t have as a youth. Thing is, life ain’t nearly always fair. Some of us get way more than we deserve, some of us a lot less. Etta James’s life was accompanied by a lot of pain from the jump. Maybe, my friend Ace was right. Maybe all that pain explains the joy her legions of fans received for over a half century. As one of the legions, I can only say, “Gosh, Etta, I wish things had been different. In a good way, of course. I’m sorry you had to experience so much pain in order for your fans to experience so much joy. We did, you know.”
In the end, there is little doubt hundreds of years from now, throngs will still be listening to At Last, Something’s Got a Hold On Me and all the other tunes in Jamesetta Hawkins nee ‘Etta James’ discography.
I also thank God for Etta James.
 Everyone should have at least one friend, who is a professional blues, jazz, or rock musician. If you don’t have one, go out an acquire one immediately. They are rare commodities. Just don’t marry one of ‘em.
©Copyright 2012 Will Cantrell