Today, January 20, 2012, the music world lost a legend. Etta James wasn't just one singer with one style- she helped to launch blues, R&B and soul as musical genres and also sang gospel, jazz, and rock-n-roll. She launched her career in the mid-50s and you can see this launch, portrayed decently by Beyonce in the movie Cadillac Records. James suffered drug addiction but, would climb her way out of it to find success. We were lucky to not lose her to drugs and to have her on this Earth as long as we did.
How can I limit the songs that I love from this woman? I can't. This list started as a Top Five then songs just kept jumping on the list and finally, I just decided to do a playlist that would showcase Etta James. If you've never heard of her, I hope you walk away from this with a new appreciation of her talent and what we've lost today. If you know her, feel free to make your own list, I'd love to see what other songs inspired you. RIP Etta James. Thank you for your voice, soul and all you've done for music.
There is no way you're going to make an Etta James playlist and not put At Last on it. Her hit single from her debut album of the same name made James a hit. Though she got ticked when Beyonce was asked to sing "her song" for President Obama, this wasn't her song. It was performed for a musical by Glen Miller but, James made it famous and her version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
On a personal note, I love this song. It was the song I walked down the aisle to because I felt it was the perfect song for that. Every time I hear it, it stops me in my tracks, it's just so soulful and beautiful.
As you'll see from this list, I LOVE Blues and I think Etta is her best when she's singing the blues/soul. She has such a soulful voice, so full of pain and life that you can feel every word she sings. She's like the Adele of her time.
Again, this is not really "her song"- she didn't write it and she wasn't the first (or second) woman to sing it. Those honors go to Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington, respectively. But, it's James' voice that tugs at your heartstrings and begs you to join her in her quest for that lasting love that'll last longer than one night.
This is my go-to rainy day song. "Don't know why, there's no sun up in the sky, stormy weather, since my man and I ain't together..." This song was also sung by Lena Horne and Billy Holiday and I like those versions too but, I always turn back to Etta's version. It always mellows me out and makes me pause to listen to the wonderful notes that accompany her sad, bluesy voice.
This song was made popular by Muddy Waters and if you saw the film Cadillac Records or know your blues history, you know that both Waters and James were label mates in the beginning of both their careers. I love this uptempo bluesy song that always makes me want to get up to get down. A bluesy toe-tapper in the best sense of those words.There's a great driving guitar and a bluesy harp riff that just rocks. "I got my mojo working but, it just won't on you...love you so bad til I don't know what to do", how many of us have felt that way in our lives?
The first time I heard this song was on Janis Joplin's Farewell Song. It's spooky how much Joplin sounds like James. I like this song because it's a fun song that lets the man know that though he fell for a fool that cheated on him and treated him like garbage but now, he has a real woman on his side now that will do what he chooses and take care of him. It's fun, it's upbeat, it's a little rock-n-roll.
I played this vinyl when I wanted to sneak in some funk into a blues night that I was DJing when I lived in Hermosa Beach. I got the vinyl for 50 cents out of a dusty used bin and proceeded to discover that what I thought was going to be bluesy/jazzy Etta James was actually and wonderfully surprisingly funky Etta James. The same thing I loved about bluesy/jazzy James, I loved even more in the funky version. Some more great songs from this album (Changes, by the way) are: Night People and Night by Night.
If a bad shut-yo-mouth sings a female proud and strong song, you know it's gonna be full of funky goodness. You definitely want to give it a listen if that bad motha is Etta James, a woman known for never sugarcoating anything. "Now Davy Crockett He was the king of the wild frontier I'd tame him down If he had his old dead self here
Now Jesse James and Frank James Baddest men in the land We got some women who'd make 'em eat now, Out of your hand
Now John Dillinger The woman in red got him Now teach all you hardies about a W.O.M.A.N."
I LOVE this version of this song. You get to hear exactly how talented Etta James was. She spends the first part of the song singing in a cappella until it builds up to a blues-rock crescendo that begs you to dance along.
Getting back to the blues, Etta gives you an education about where the blues came from before giving you the perfect example of a great blues song. Everything about this song makes it a great blues example- the guitar, the harp, the lyrics and beat. If you close your eyes, you will probably be transported to a smoky blues club with a bunch of blues and swing dancers getting sweaty on the dancefloor.
Etta is at her soul-wrenching best in this song. "I can do what I want I'm in complete control That's what I tell myself I got a mind of my own I'll be alright alone Don't need anybody else
I gave myself a good talkin' to No more bein' a fool for you And when I see you all I remember Is how you make me wanna surrender"
Now, those are lyrics. I just love it. I've listened to this song (on repeat) when I was dumped,way back in the dating days, when I thought my heart was broken and would lose myself in it. It's the perfect song for when you're trying to give yourself a pep talk after breaking up with someone.
This song is written by Sly and The Family Stone and it's one of my favorites (tied for first with Thank You) of theirs. I just had to add Etta's version because she just kills it and her voice is perfect for this song. If you've never heard the Sly version, I'm warning you that this one may taint you but, go ahead and give it a go- you won't be sorry!