Etta James: Songs We Love
Few singers proved more pliable over the past 50 years than Etta James. Pop, blues, rock 'n' roll, soul, jazz — she sang them all with aplomb. But it was her string of stunning singles during the 1960s that cemented James as one of the great female vocalists of all time.
James died Friday in a Los Angeles hospital after a battle with leukemia. She was 73. In this edition of "Songs We Love," we asked five NPR stations to celebrate her memory by selecting their favorite Miss Peaches jam. Not surprisingly, all of the picks date back to her '60s heyday.
Jazz24's Nick Morrison on "At Last"
Etta James' version of "At Last" might be the strongest testament to her greatness as singer. With this song, she took a rather saccharine Tin Pan Alley melody and transformed it into one of the most soulful ballads in the history of rhythm and blues. The song (by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren) was written for a 1942 musical film called Orchestra Wives and was originally recorded by the Glenn Miller Orchestra. As performed by Miller and a few others over the years, it was a good song, but not a great one — until James got her hands on it in 1960. For her version, she dug deep into the song, pulled out every ounce of soul it contained, and then added a whole lot of her own. The result was a classic. Gordon and Warren wrote it, but Etta James owns it, now and forever.
KEXP's Johnny Horn on "Tell Mama"
It was a natural move in 1967 to take the Johnny Otis protege from California south to capture the down-home soul sound that was so hot at the time. Etta James shined with the heartfelt backing band and horns in Muscle Shoals, while Rick Hall's tough production set the tone. "Tell Mama" is an uptempo soul cut with words that play on classic imagery: Mama Etta is gonna take the hurt away and make it all better.
WXPN's David Dye on "I'd Rather Go Blind"
Whenever I happen upon a jukebox stocked with "I'd Rather Go Blind," it always gets my quarter. It's a perfect song. The intro, with its B-3 pad set off by the locked-in pattern of rhythm guitar and drums, gives way to the defeated sadness of James' voice. The rising swell of her performance captures you for all two and a half minutes, but give James double credit as co-author of a powerful lyric: "When the reflection in the glass that I held to my lips, now baby / Revealed the tears that was on my face." I recognized the utter power of the song itself when Fleetwood Mac's Christine McVie covered it in 1969, a year after James' single. But then I graduated from McVie's affectless alto — no doubt a gorgeous instrument — to James' visceral pain. I do wonder what it took out of her to sing such a sad song all her career.
WBGO's Bob Porter on "Something's Got A Hold On Me"
The Hideaway was as close to a roadhouse as you could find in 1963 Los Angeles. It featured a revue format: separate sets by emcee, band and headliner. I was there to see the band, The Hideaway All-Stars, sitting so that I was looking down on the bar but had a great view of the bandstand. When the band finished its set, the emcee brought on the singer, the band hit the entrance music and the singer took the mic — and she screamed. The rack of glasses above the bartender's head shook. This was a Memorex moment years before the Ella Fitzgerald commercial. Hello, Etta James!
It was the first time I had heard her live, and when she broke into "Something's Got a Hold on Me," it sent chills up my spine. A couple of months after the performance, she was recorded live in Nashville for the Argo album, Etta James Rocks The House. The album contains a cover photo of her which is exactly the way I remember her. In the years since, I've seen her perhaps 20 times and heard her sing all manner of material. But if someone asks me about Etta James, I don't think of more recent times. I think of hearing that scream at The Hideaway many years ago.
KCRW's Gary Calamar on "In The Basement"
"In the Basement" is a 1966 single on Chess Records. It's one of the great tracks by the fabulous Etta James, written by and performed with her childhood friend, Sugar Pie Desanto. The excitement and raw energy in her vocals tells me this is a party I can't miss. You can practically smell the funk in this basement. I first heard the song on the soundtrack to the 1999 film The Hurricane, and it grabbed me as soon as I heard Etta James' amazing growl. I love the raw, gritty soul of this recording — a rare groove indeed.