From Adele to R. Kelly, Etta James’ influence is everlasting
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Etta James, whose grit-laced, noir-soaked vocals traversed the worlds of blues, jazz and R&B, died Friday morning, having suffered through failing health in recent years and succumbing finally to chronic leukemia. She was 73.
James battled multiple addictions throughout her career, and her struggles were part of what made her one of the most emotive -- and influential -- singers around.
Back in 2009, Adele told me it was James who has been the biggest musical influence on her career. ‘Etta James is the only artist I’ve ever properly believed when I listen to her,’ Adele said. ‘I feel her pain.’
Adele made it clear that she wasn’t trying to copy James’ writing style or vocal ticks. Instead, she wanted to channel the deep-down soul that is apparent in nearly all of James’ work. ‘Sometimes it’s an oppressive thing to sing songs that are really sad. There’s an honesty to them that blows me away. Not that [she was always writing her] own songs, but the way she sang them sounds like she had everything to do with that song. It’s a good thing to be honest.’
Getting there, in fact, was a challenge for Beyonce. James’ earthy ballads are all-encompassing, bringing an open-armed approach to heartache, whereas Beyonce’s more glistening songs, with their top-flight production, have at times felt more about the blemishes in beauty. At least until Beyonce channeled James for 2008 movie ‘Cadillac Records,’ which opened up the young singer’s voice to a greater vulnerability. ‘I wasn’t sure I could even do it,’ Beyonce said of tackling the James-like role in 2008. ‘I read Etta’s book and watched every video of her I could find. I wanted to do her justice. She’s a real woman that had guts and was unapologetic. ... I wanted to have the swollen eyes and the veins in my face too. I wanted to make it real. But during the filming, you couldn’t talk to me. I am a very happy person, I am, and I realize how blessed I am, so to be in such a painful place. ... It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.’
Watch Beyonce’s take on one of James’ signature songs, ‘At Last,’ below, and compare it to James’ take, which has become the standard:
And now James’ rendition:
Of course, don’t think James didn’t know how to cut loose, either. One of her earliest hits, ‘The Wallflower (Dance With Me Henry),’ is rather direct about what should be going down behind closed doors. It might sound positively chaste compared to some of today’s R&B hits, but where would the likes of bedroom lotharios such as R. Kelly be without James bringing a dash of the lascivious to the Eisenhower era?
It might feel a long way removed from this, but the line to James is there:
Read the Times’ obituary on Etta James here. Stay tuned to Pop & Hiss for an in-depth appreciation of the artist.
-- Todd Martens