etta james, 1938-2012

etta james

Some performers just know how to make an entrance. Take the great Etta James, for instance, when she took to the stage at the Kentucky Horse Park in September 1995.

Armed with a stampeding version of the blues/soul standard Feel Like Breakin’ Up Somebody’s Home, she tore into an afternoon set (part of a festival bill headlined by B.B. King) like a bulldozer. Woe be to anyone that stood in her way.

It was hardly the most graceful of showcases for the extraordinary song stylist, who died yesterday at age 73. But that wasn’t always what James was about. Forget, for the moment, the immortal 1961 breakthrough hit At Last. James in performance could be as bawdy as a sailor. She could be intimidating, shocking and crass. Her version of Come to Mama that afternoon in 1995 was, simply put, not for the timid.

But that was part of what make James so outrageous. She remained, through her glory years and the tougher, drug-rattled times that came in their wake, a fiercely confident and commanding artist. And when the right song came along – like At Last, I’d Rather Go Blind or the comparatively lesser known Damn Your Eyes (which soul diva Bettye LaVette performed in James’ honor just last weekend in Louisville) – and met her fireball vocal chops and stage persona, man, could the sparks fly.

James was seldom represented well on albums released from the ‘90s on. 1989’s Seven Year Itch was probably her last truly solid recording. But there remain so many wonderful documents of her volcanic talent. Recommended listening: 1961’s epic At Last, 1962’s regal Etta James Sings for Lovers and 1970’s far nastier Etta James Sings Funk. Or for efficiency’s sake, just pick up the fine 2007 anthology Gold which leans heavily on material from the singer’s outstanding Chess albums of the ‘60s.

All are snapshots of a blues/soul hurricane’s glorious outbursts.



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