Etta James is dead.
Keith and I did a show last night, and in the middle of the set played “I Would Rather Go Blind” as a tribute to Etta. “Something told me it was over”…from the opening chords we were both gripped by emotion, I tried to let myself become the song in the way Etta always did, hearing her version in my head as I sang, as if she were whispering the lyrics in my ear to jog my memory, and for the rest of the evening Keith and I were both on the verge of tears. Every song we did after that was about Etta as well, her song having shaken us so much that it changed the weather in the room.
Many people are paying tribute to her this morning. In the age of Twitter it gets distilled down to celeb posts that mention “At Last”, but my first taste of Etta came from hearing the live album “Etta James Rocks the House”. She stands on the cover in a tight cocktail dress and Cleopatra eye shadow, her arm in a cast, shaking her finger at the audience and roaring into the mike – the cover alone is like a manifesto of female power. Then hearing her in that live recording, so raw and true, it was mind-blowing for me at the time. I began to study her in earnest then, and she was having a sort of comeback at the time with her first record on Island, Seven Year Itch. Go find that one, find Rocks the House, find her in the Chuck Berry documentary “Hail Hail Rock n Roll”, get her tribute to Billie Holiday “Mystery Lady”. If this is news to you, dig a little beyond “At Last” and you will be richly rewarded.
Of course she had millions of fans who knew her deeply as an artist. Many saw her live which was the best way to experience her. Etta was a road warrior and kept up a heavy touring schedule despite her health issues. I was lucky enough to see her many times, and it was thrilling to watch her, all 300-plus pounds of her, command the room and wield her sexuality so deftly, leaning on a stool for support sometimes but so playful and confident, man she was sexy and she knew it, and she knew you knew it. Then she would get serious and let loose on a blues that would wrench the soul out of you and leave you stunned. It’s easy to think of her as someone with a deep well of loneliness, knowing about her precarious childhood and her history of addictions. You just had to look at her in those years to see that her hunger was larger than her ability to satisfy it. If that (or the memory of that) was what gave her the power to sing like did, if she was singing to quench an unquenchable longing, then we all know something of that longing, and it’s expression in her music was a kind of magic. To transform an absence of love into an expression of love that resounded in so many of us.
Beyonce and Adele are her most high-profile admirers of the moment, but there are and were many musicians and singers under Etta’s spell. Janis Joplin idolized her, the Rolling Stones were great fans, Aretha Franklin recognized her as a peer. There are legions of others, famous and obscure. Etta certainly had a towering instrument, but also the intelligence and musicality to know how to use it. She sang jazz and country tunes as well as blues, r n b and pop. I never heard her without feeling her direct connection to the lyric, without hearing her soulfully caress or swing or holler each note to it’s best advantage. I learned so much from her and I am so grateful.
I was so moved by reading her son Donato’s description of Etta dying in his arms. I hope that the turbulence of her earlier life gave way to a more peaceful time as she got older. Donato says she was a great mother, and I hope she was able to give her kids what she never had as a child. I trust that she knew how loved and admired she was, and I hope she felt proud and satisfied of what she made of her life and what she accomplished with her gift. I think about what her music meant to me, and I multiply that by millions, and I’m happy for her.