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Etta James: A Personal Retrospective

January 21, 2012 Leave a comment

 

I first encountered Etta James when I was about 16 or 17.  I was at a small café near my home town in NJ to play at an open mic, and there on the stage was a beautiful woman singing acapella with a low mellifluous voice … a song I thought I knew but couldn’t place – it was “At Last”.  At that time I still hadn’t understood the power of Soul – to me it was unsophisticated compared to my heavy rotation of Rock and Roll and Alternative music – even Jazz and Blues I could appreciate but Soul just never made a very strong impression on me until that night: when I felt what that song felt like inside that woman singing.  This woman wasn’t Etta, but someone else who after that night became a close friend of mine, notwithstanding it was through her that I met Etta.

That song (undoubtedly Ms. James’ most recognized) stayed in my head, and as things usually go with me, I later came upon a cassette tape on the street: it was a collection of music from artist like Luther Vandross, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett and of course Etta James.  On this compilation I was introduced to her version of “The Very Thought of You” – I still regard it to this day as the definitive version.  I felt a mixture of strength and pain in her voice that let me know that love is not about the beauty of love but the pain of its overpowering magnitude.  Etta knew how to change a meaning, how to expose the light in the dark places and then make you shield your eyes from its burning brightness. This of course was a product of sheer talent and of her upbringing which transformed her singing personality – but she was also gifted with a voice few will ever match.  It was as gritty as it was enveloping as cutting as it was soothing.

From then on I began to respect the woman – her life, her importance to the history of music.  I always thought she was a bit of a forgotten hero in a sense – even amidst her many accolades and awards.  Unlike Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner who managed to re-catapult themselves into the limelight in the 80s– remember, before The Blues Brothers,  Ms Franklin was on her road to becoming one of the nostalgic greats of a by-gone era along with Tina Turner who had to struggle many years in London clubs to regain an audience.  They were fortunate to not only have been rediscovered  but to have managed to find a more modern pop sound which has kept them in the public eye.  Etta James on the other hand, also had a resurgence after long years of drug abuse, but instead of going pop stayed deeply connected to  her blues and soul roots and therefore away from popular radio stations.  This only helped to build up the myth of the woman – the “Soul Survivor” but perhaps deny her the mainstream acceptance she rightfully deserves as one the queens of her genre that is dominated by many other more radio friendly greats.

Later I would only speak with Ms James again on a few occasions when she would sing on Late Night Shows or when she was played on some jazz station.  But every time I knew for certain that her voice was deeper than anything I had heard before, fuller than all the emotion I could salvage from my being, and sadly that her body sicker than it should have been.  It was obvious even ten years ago that we would soon lose our great matriarch of Blues and Soul – but even as she had to sit to perform, with her hands blown up like two balloons she brought her pain up from deep inside herself and gave everything she had as if that was all she had.  And perhaps that’s how it works with talent like hers – her art is what drives her and is all she does know to give: like breathing.

Etta James was never squeaky clean and perhaps this is what endeared me most to her.  Her past was not glamorous and at times her present was questionable, but one thing is undeniable – in a world of manufactured singers and pop stars, we lost one more link (if not one of the roots) to real, unabashed artistry and with it our popular music has a little less soul.  Rest in peace Etta James your voice will live on for as long as men will cry and women cheer for life’s long journey.

apt

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