Remembering and listening to Etta James
In the world of American music (and especially rhythm & blues and soul) who, I would ask, could ever presume to test Etta James?
Now she has died, and no doubt the world shall speak well of her, but for all the recognition and notoriety, it never seemed that recognition equaled the talents and creative projection of one of the very greatest female singers in the history of recorded music, a woman who seemed to be capable of literally melting any microphone which carried her commanding and peerless voice.
Etta James had a sound with as identifiable a signature as her fellow Chess label-mate, Howling Wolf: It was immense and unique, and rightly called “a force of nature.” It could phrase the most delicate of lyrics from a ballad or shake the rafters of a concert hall. Compared to James, noted female singers of the ’60s (such as Janis Joplin) seemed derivative and one-dimensional or, in the case of the more polished Diana Ross, thin and diminished gruel.
You either were totally entranced by this vocal persona, or it was simply too overwhelming for your palate.
She was the greatest of talents in her generation when heard on record and stage, and for those who had experienced her voice and passion, there was always the question as to why Etta James was able to achieve considerable recognition and success, but not super-stardom.
The explanations given were often based in her well-known bouts of drug addiction. But if ever there was an example of a performer whose greatest strengths and virtues were also a limitation to greater popularity, there is no greater example than James. Quite simply, Etta was such a strong presence one can imagine producers trying to figure how to take that cauldron of emotion and towering, gritty, larynx-splitting ability and perhaps vainly hope to dilute it for the purposes of pop palatability. That soulful blowtorch of a vocal was larger than the needs of pop music, relegating her to the realm of legend, if not multi-platinum sales.
So, if the top of the pop charts was not her normal place in this world, she nonetheless made of her career an inimitable one that stretched from the mid-1950s (when the also-recently departed Johnny Otis — he died three days before her, at the age of 90 — brought her to Modern Records in Los Angeles, and to his road show R&B revue) into the 21st century.
James may not have had the commercial cachet of a Celine Dion, but then again, it is questionable any American president and wife will be seen taking to the floor to a Ms. Dion recording as we did when the Mr. and Mrs. Obama glided to “At Last” in 2009.
There were always labels and producers eager to work with this moody, gifted diva of blues, and like Nina Simone, Ray Charles, James Brown, Muddy Waters and Solomon Burke, Etta James was so obviously a class of one in her art, it would be foolish to claim otherwise.
I’ll remember those take-no-prisoner shows of her (I was lucky enough in the early ’90s to have emceed one of them, here in St. Louis): I remember how she wowed the crowd at the Fox Theatre when a filmmaker decided to capture Chuck Berry in concert. And of course the many, many four-star records she recorded for labels such as Chess, Island, Sony and others are such irrefutable proof of what I’ve just written, it’s pointless to say any more but this:
Listen to Etta James, whenever you wish to hear the real deal. She’ll be waiting.
Papa Ray is host of Soul Selector, every Monday 4-7 p.m. Central, on 88.1 KDHX.