Etta James has passed on at the too-young age of 73. I’ve always liked her music, although I find her seminal hit “At Last” to be a touch over-the-top. Lately, the tune of hers I’ve been enjoying is her version of “Lovesick Blues,” a song Hank Williams made famous (I like Etta’s version better).
If you haven’t seen Cadillac Records, which is a dramatization of the Chess Records story, you should. It’s maybe a little cheesy, but Beyoncé’s performance as the young Etta James (she started performing at 14) is excellent (even if Etta herself didn’t think so).
There will be obituaries aplenty, which are well worth reading because she had an incredible story (to give you just a taste, this is from the Guardian obit: “Her approach to both singing and life was throughout one of wild, often desperate engagement that included violence, drug addiction, armed robbery and extremely capricious behaviour.”). But here’s Etta in her own words about how, as a teenager, she came up with her “style” — including her platinum-blond hair:
I had a real nice figure and I was tall. And I remember this singer Joyce Bryant. … She wore fishtail gowns, sequined fishtail gowns, and she was black, and she had the nerve to wear platinum hair. And then I also loved Jayne Mansfield, because Jayne Mansfield had the blond hair and had like the poochie lips and the mole and all this. So I think what I did, it was kind of combine [them]. … I wanted to look grown, you know; I wanted to wear tall high-heeled shoes, and fishtail gowns, and big, long rhinestone earrings.
In addition to her junkie ways, her hack support, her adoring claque, and her bewildering discography, what makes James a myth and a secret at the same time is how hard she is to classify. Blues, jazz, pop, rock, soul–she’s all of these and none, because what she really is is r&b, in its original sense: blues so fetching white people can’t help but love ’em even though they’re aimed at young blacks. She’s got that kid thing–a big reason her dirty voice is such a permanent scandal is that for all the hard experience she conveyed at 15 she still sounds underage as she comes up on 60, never outgrowing a sensibility she was old-beyond-her-years for as she worked through the ’50s and behind-the-times with when she hit in the ’60s. She’s been recycled as relentlessly as the grease in a french fryer. But from the makeout-party schmaltz of “Sunday Kind of Love” to the Muscle Shoals fatback of “Tell Mama,” this 20-song exploitation finally gets her sensibility right.
May she rest in peace.