ETTA JAMES / “Etta James Classic Mixtape”
If you don’t like the blues and ain’t too particular about R&B in general, you might as well skip this whole mixtape. Period. End of story.
Last week when we dropped Etta singing jazz, I knew we couldn’t get away with not including some of her classic R&B material, of which there is, as we say here in the fertile crescent, “beaucoup,” meaning a healthy bunch, a whole lot!
So the first part of the mixtape is comprised of 17 of a total of 27 tracks. At least a dozen of the first 17 tracks are genuine hits from the early days of Etta’s career including her first big number. Most of us know the song by the hook: “Roll With Me, Henry” rather than by it’s official title “The Wallflower.”
And speaking of “Wallflower,” I suppose the term is obvious but what may not be obvious is the double entendre inherent in Etta’s song. Let’s step back a second to the house parties of the early sixties—the living room light bulb replaced by a blue, or even a red, low wattage joint. Forty watts was bright enough.
Along one wall was one or two card tables with drinks and little tunafish sandwiches (sliced white bread quartered into triangles with the crust detached. Personally, I like celery in my tunafish, along with a dash of cayenne, and maybe some pickles.) So, anyway, there was one table with the finger food, which included a bowl of potato chips, and maybe a short stack of party napkins, yaknow the ones in the different pastel shades, usually pink, light blue, and some shade of green. If there were two tables, next to the sandwich table was another table laden with the drinks. Fancy parties had a bowl of spiked punch—Thunderbird wine at the ah, “inexpensive,” venues, Taylor’s Cream Sherry at the parties whose patrons had deeper pockets.
On one of the adjacent walls was the record player and a bunch of 45’s—those small records with the big holes in the middle. In many cases instead of one of those big, plastic adaptors that fit over the thin spindle in the middle of the turntable, you had to make do by employing the little push-in plastic thing-a-jigs designed to snap into the big hole on the 45, thereby retrofitting the plastic platter into something with a small hole in the center that you could play on the stereo. Whoever was running the party was stationed near the stereo to make sure the dudes didn’t only put slow songs on.
The remaining two walls is where the terms “roll with me” and “wallflower” come in. On one of the two remaining walls would be arrayed the finest assortment of teenage women any now-approaching-manhood, young male ever wanted to alight his eyes upon. And on the opposite wall, from which we could spy the food, the music, and the girls, was a row of us hard-legs. Now, one or two of us would dance on the fast songs, or maybe join in the “Popeye” line (the Popeye was a New Orleans line dance from back in the day, i.e. the early sixties). But what we was really checking for was when Arnold would slide over to the stereo table and go through the stack of sides, spying like hawks when he pulled out two or more platters and gently picked up the spindle arm (didn’t want to scratch the record that was already playing), and if he removed the records that were about to fall and replaced them with the two he had picked out, that was the cue.
At that point us the hipper of we males would have already jockeyed for position—the more crafty of us would have sauntered over to the food table and picked up a potato chip and then sort of stood close to the punch like we was about to get a little Dixie-cup to slack our thirst, but what we were really doing was trying to get close enough to Betty to be the first one to ask her to dance—well, not really ask, because you usually didn’t verbally say anything other than a casual flip of your hand in a graceful arc in front of her, ending with your palm facing upward as an implicit invitation to join you in slow dragging.
The young women who didn’t dance at all were what was called “wallflowers.” And by “dance at all” we meant the ones who wouldn’t slow drag. Now, “slow drag” was the general term for dancing to a slow record where you sort of rocked back and forth in a tight embrace. (I remember while visiting Trinidad once that they called it “renting a tile” because you stayed circling on one twelve-inch square linoleum tile.)
But there was a move beyond the general slow drag, and that move was called “rolling,” which, of course, referred to the circular motion of the pelvis while slow dragging. Obviously, this was a form of simulated coitus. In fact, “roll” was also a censor-acceptable synonym for the simulation activity.
Everybody would slow drag, but not everyone would roll. Some girls—indeed, a lot of girls—didn’t like to “roll,” or to be more specific, didn’t like to roll with just anyone. They would roll their asses off with somebody they was digging-on; otherwise they would slow drag but kind of stick their butts back—we use to call that putting “daylight” between you and them. “Daylight” was a sarcastic term considering that most of our parties was at night and considering that slow dragging and rolling, whether simulated or actual, was generally done, at best (or should I say at “the most”), in semi-darkness.
Ok, so here is the flip in Etta’s song: she’s calling out the dude! Our experience is that it was usually the dude hitting on the young woman and here Etta James makes a song in which she is the aggressor.
“The Wallflower” was Etta’s first big hit: #1 in 1955. The classic cut was an answer song to Hank Ballard’s hit “Work With Me, Annie.” Both songs with their thinly disguised lyrics (which would be considered totally tame by current 21st century standards) were considered risqué in their day.
Of course risqué was the inside palm of the hand with which Etta fanned. She did risqué better than most anyone else recording during her time, which by the way includes the here and now. Even as a septuagenarian she can be more sexy than a seventeen year-old. And speaking of sexy, another deeptitude of Etta’s persona was that even though there were attempts to market her as a sex kitten, there was always too much tiger in Etta’s tank for any cutesy, demure, purring kitten shit.
Etta James was all woman—no girl, no innocent, teach-me-tonight, I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing shtick. Etta would grab you and tell you, down to the tiniest detail, what she wanted you to do, and that was made obvious from song one: Roll with me!
Etta performing in September 1963 at the New Era Club, Nashville, Tennessee
Now, as hard as the first 17 songs hit, they are pitty-pat jabs compared to the ten live cuts that conclude this mixtape. If any under-aged ears are listening, Ms. James is obviously guilty of contributing to the instruction (some might say “corruption”) of minors. While these lyrics may seem light compared to what’s on commercial radio and VH1 nowadays, the really upsetting aspect of Etta’s performance is not the words themselves but rather the way she articulates and insinuates.
Indeed, madam James can say more with a strategically placed silence than other singers can do with a mouthful of lyrics. Check her on “Woman (Shake Your Booty)” talking about how she’ll have a man “eating out of my ——.” And she leaves no room for doubt—she is not talking about china, cutlery, flatware or any other kitchen instrument or item. This is some vernacular testimony that is perilously close to salacious vulgate; in other words she’s talking shit!
And don’t even get me started on the live version of “I’d Rather Go Blind” on which she even takes to taunting the audience with her commentary on their responses to her. This is the kind of Saturday night performance that keeps some people from going to church on Sunday. They feel like they’ve already experienced heaven.
On any given night Etta James is subject to be arrested for indecent performance (although undoubtedly, after coming under Etta’s spell and finding his law enforcement self totally captivated by Ms. James siren sounds, said sheriff would be enjoying himself so much that most likely he will forget that he bust up in the joint ready to make an arrest).
What I like most about Etta’s singing is that she is obviously proud of her feminine powers. There is not even a sliver of shame sullying her enjoyment of these good, ole nasty blues.
This is the kind of music that revels in being whatever the fuck it feels like being. Make a preacher cross the street and a priest make the sign of the cross just to be in the hearing vicinity of these sounds. When Etta goes to ah-hoooing, groaning and moaning folks can’t help themselves: they in turn go to hooting and hollering, all loud and everything. You can hear the audience’s unrestrained response.
This is not music for folk seeking salvation or redemption for their sins, rather these are the song of those for whom the celebration of carnality is a sacred obligation. Etta James is a saint of earthly and earthy sounds—and thank god she took up this calling.
BTW, FYI, check the last two cuts. On “Sugar On The Floor” Etta got nerve to have a French horn in the band for a live performance—you heard me, a French horn’s mellow tones embellishing the nuances of Etta moaning about her sugar throwed all over the floor. Then there is the unhidden politics of “Born Blue.” If you got ears, I ain’t got to say no more. Classic Etta James done said all that needs to be said.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Her Heart Is In The Blues
Etta’s heart seems to be in the blues, but the records I most like from her are her slow, heartbreak records like the classic of classics “I’d Rather Go Blind” and others like “Sunday Kind Of Love,” “I Wish Someone Would Care” and her very nice version of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.”
One thing I was surprised about was her songwriting. Frankly, I didn’t know she wrote songs at all. One of my favorite records from the Esther Phillips mix a few weeks back was “All The Way Down.” And now I find out this week that Etta James not only performed that record first, she wrote it too.
I know this mixtape is already threatening the two-hour mark and Kalamu’s server is probably about to shut him down, but I’m going to make mention of two of my favorite Etta James records to see if Kalamu can fit them into the mix somewhere. Both track are from the relatively obscure 1969 LP entitled Etta James Sings Funk. Despite the title, there’s a wide range of music on the album, from soul to blues and, yes, even a little funk.
The first track I like is “Nothing From Nothing Leaves Nothing,” a tune cut from the same mold as “I’d Rather Go Blind.” “How you gonna make something out of nothing?” Etta asks, “When you ain’t got nothing to start with? Nothing from nothing leaves zero.” In other words, she’s telling that man to go ahead and walk out of the door. She’s got nothing with him, so subtracting his presence won’t make any difference. That’s cold.
The other track I really like from Etta James Sings Funk is an actual funk record, “Quick Reaction & Satisfaction,” where Etta’s band does their best J.B.’s imitation. “You know that a snake crawls on the ground,” Etta starts off and you know she’s not talking about literal reptiles. Nope, she’s staying on the same subject as the ‘Nothing’ record, that subject being no-good men.
—Mtume ya Salaam
P.S. On the live version of “I Just Want To Make Love To You,” the guitarist takes a solo and then I noticed Etta says, “Ladies and gentlemen, that was Shuggie Otis.” I was wondering what Shuggie was doing these days. Good to know he’s still playing even if he isn’t writing and recording under his own name anymore.
Etta James Classic Mixtape Playlist
01 “The Wallﬂower” – Gold
02 “I Prefer You” – The Sweetest Peaches
03 “Pushover” – Gold
04 “All I Could Do is Cry” – Gold
05 “Stop the Wedding” – Gold
06 “Tell Mama” – Gold
07 “I Wish Someone Would Care” – The Sweetest Peaches
08 “My Dearest Darling” – Gold
09 “Security” – Gold
10 “A Sunday Kind of Love” – Gold
11 “Trust in Me” – Gold
12 “Waiting for Charlie (to Come Home)” – Gold
13 “Nothing From Nothing Leaves Nothing” – Etta James Sings Funk (1969)
14 “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry” – Matriarch of the Blues
15 “I’ve Been Lovin’ You Too Long” – The Very Best Of Etta James
16 “Quick Reaction & Satisfaction” – Etta James Sings Funk (1969)
17 “All the Way Down” – Gold
18 “Respect Yourself (live)” – At Last – Live & In the Studio
19 “Woman (Shake Your Booty) (live)” – At Last – Live & In the Studio
20 “Stormy Monday (live) – At Last – Live & In the Studio
21 “All the Way Down (Summer Heat) (live)” – At Last – Live & In the Studio
22 “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” – Blues In The Night Volume 1: The Early Show
23 “Baby What You Want Me To Do” – Blues In The Night Vol. 2: The Late Show
24 “Sweet Little Angel” – Blues In The Night Vol. 2: The Late Show
25 “I’d Rather Go Blind” – Blues In The Night Vol. 2: The Late Show
26 “Sugar On the Floor” – Live From San Francisco
27 “Born Blue” - Live From San Francisco
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