An Appreciation: Etta James
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Etta James appreciation: Simple lyrics took on deeper meaning when sung by Etta James. Her unmatched song styling helped bring West Coast R&B to prominence.
To get a sense of the distance that singer Etta James traveled in her life, and the influence she had on American popular music, head back to a hotel room near the Primalon Ballroom in San Francisco, 1954. The singer Johnny Otis is tired but has agreed to audition a shy 16-year-old named Jamesetta Rogers for his show.
The girl is so nervous that she can’t face Otis and sing, recounts George Lipsitz in his Otis biography, “Midnight at the Barrelhouse,” so she retreats to the more acoustically forgiving bathroom and sings from afar. Otis, excited, wants to sign her on the spot but needs parental consent because of her age. The problem? She’s never met her father and her mother is in jail. Undeterred, she fakes the call (or forges a signature — Otis and James’ recollections differ on the specifics), and the rest, as they say, is history.
Los Angeles music took a double blow this week with Friday’s death of James at the age of 73, and, on Tuesday, the passing of Otis, two longtime Southland musicians who helped place the West Coast on the R&B map at a time when much of the hottest rhythm & blues was coming out of the American South.
The evidence lies in the pair’s first single together, “The Wallflower,” a response song, one of many at the time, to a Hank Ballard hit called “Work With Me, Annie.” A thinly veiled sexual come-on, Ballard’s version went viral before there was such a term and prompted a string of hits that used the song as a springboard into a musical conversation. James’ response takes up Ballard’s invite and goes further: “Well I ain’t teasin’ / You better stop your freezin’ / If you want romancin’ / You better learn some dancin’.”
Many historians consider “Work With Me Annie” and the string of replies to be the big bang of rock ‘n’ roll — and a bold invitation for a young African American female singer in 1955. James’ explosive voice, coupled with her innocent presence belting out such relatively bawdy lyrics, made for a disconnect that James and Otis took full advantage of.
To say that James was a magnetic presence would be an understatement: It’s been speculated that blues legend B.B. King wrote “Sweet Sixteen” with her in mind, and as James grew, her voice and delivery also matured, allowing her a range that nailed ballads with the same passion as rockers.
In fact, despite her rise as a rock ‘n’ roll singer and her eventual induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, James was called “The Queen of R&B” for a reason: It was in her less raucous, more romantic ballads where she and her voice burned the brightest. Her first Grammy nomination in 1960 was given to her for a heartbreaking ballad called “All I Could Do Was Cry,” where she sings of watching her true love get married as she stands outside the church.
And then there’s “At Last,” the song she will forever be associated with. Written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, the original version was recorded in 1941. A life-affirming fairy tale of true love recorded gently by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the emotion that James packs into the song is urgent and real. Her phrasing of the first line, a throwaway in lesser hands, is only seven simple words but conveys a novel’s worth of feeling: “At last,” she sings, sounding both relieved and overjoyed as a candle-lit string section supports her voice, “my love has come along.” It’s one of the great singing moments in the American musical canon.
Though she became an icon, James had few crossover hits and faded from the charts by the end of the 1960s, though her 2003 comeback album, “Let’s Roll,” was well received and won a Grammy Award. By then, though, the years of substance abuse and struggles with weight had taken their toll. But one listen to some of her classic tracks — especially her version of Willie Dixon’s hyper masculine boast, “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” from 1961 — is enough to confirm her place in the pantheon. On it, she growls like Wanda Jackson and purrs like Eartha Kitt, repeating the words “love to you” over and over again. James seemed to snatch the lyrics from the jaws of lesser singers and eat them up herself. But that’s what she did her whole life, and why Etta will be remembered as one of America’s greatest song stylists.
-- Randall Roberts
Images: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images