ETTA JAMES / Etta James Mixtape
The article below, praising the life work of Etta James, is the first repeat article we have ever posted on Breath of Life. Etta deserves our kudos and our admiration. For those who missed the first go round on August 31, 2009, we present a second chance to dance.
Oh, and a quick trivia note: Obama crooning a few bars of Rev. Green's "Let's Stay Together" is part of the back story. By now, I'm sure most BoL fans have seen it, if not, go here.
I’ll never be mistaken for a sentimental fool, but given enough pressure, just like the Bible says, even the rocks will cry out. Yeah, there was a moment back in January when old stone face became misty eyed. It was inauguration day—actually, inauguration night. My wife Nia and I were in DC. I was pleased but not overly moved by Obama’s inauguration activities.
Yes, the atmosphere was really, really welcoming. Imagine a crush of humanity but without pushing and shoving. People everywhere being nice to each other. Even the police were civil—smiling and generally being helpful to everyone, regardless of who they were and what a person may have looked like. If nothing else, the day proved that people could be kind. So, I enjoyed that and will never forget the humane ambiance but the general convivial atmosphere is not what really got to me.
It was hours later. I, and millions of others, watched a magic moment and made us shake out heads in awesome wonder. Forget about the seeming impossible happening: a black man being sworn in as President of the United States of America. Don’t get me wrong, that was significant, but what really touched me was when Barack and Michelle did a slow dance as Beyoncé sang “At Last.”
The President was slow dragging with a black woman!
No, this wasn’t no ballroom dancing. See, when he dropped his right arm and locked hands around the back of Michelle's waist, hitting that sweet spot at the top of her butt, the location euphemistically called the small of the back, and her arms were thrown up haloing his shoulders and they were cheek to cheek, breast to chest, eyes closed and the broadest grin possible plastered on each of their kissers, well, that was it. That was a truly triumphant moment. At last!
* * *
But it was also a bittersweet moment. “At Last” was a hugely appropriate song but those of us over forty knew in our bones that Etta James should have been singing rather than that chile Beyoncé—and I say “chile” with all due respect. You see, the Beyoncés of our world are where they are because of the tremendous sacrifices and un-quitting grit of people like Etta James—folks who paid dearly so that some members of the current generation could become both rich and famous.
Think about this: as famous and fortune-blessed as Beyoncé and others like her are, if you add up the balances in their banks accounts, no matter how large the total, it still comes to less than the money and acclaim stolen from their predecessors. Yeah, no matter how much Beyoncé makes, it is less than the amount that was due Etta and others, and certainly much, much less than the tokens earlier generations received.
Which all is why this week’s mixtape begins with a moan, an uneasy feeling. It’s a mighty heavy weight one has to lift to sing like Etta James.
The general thread of this focus is on Etta James as a jazz singer. There are three major phases. First is the R&B-oriented jazz sides. Second is the straight ahead jazz sides. Third is the quiet storm, smooth jazz approach. But before I break all of that down, let me wrap up this “At Last” issue.
What tends to happen in America is that history is minimized; that is, if the past is considered at all. Everybody wants the new, the latest; add to that an obsession with youth. Especially when it comes to entertainment, no old folks need apply. And seems like each decade lowers the bar on what’s considered old. Looks like today, forty is the new “old,” so you know where that leaves Los Angeles born (January 25, 1938) Jamesetta Hawkins.
What a birthday present it would have made to have Etta sing at the inaugural ball, especially since she shares a biracial background with Barack Obama. Although Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone never acknowledged paternity, Etta says that her mother told her Fats was Etta’s father. But unlike Obama, whose white family loved and accepted him, Etta had to make it on her own.
I don’t believe the White House intended any slight of Etta James. What probably happened was the invitation was extended to Beyoncé because of her status in the entertainment industry and because Ms. Knowles had significant lobbying efforts on her behalf. The song was probably chosen after the singer and not the other way around.
Nevertheless, regardless of the absence of maliciousness, the hurt is still palpable. Can there be true success if the elders are forgotten, overlooked and generally shunted aside in our rush to consummate our arrival and assimilation into the mainstream? Those are some of the issues that stayed in my head after inauguration day.
* * *
You know, a lot of people simply are not aware of the depth and breadth of Etta James’ talent as a vocalist. Although she can throw down with the best and get more funky that almost all the rest, that’s not all she can do. Yes, she is an R&B diva, but she’s both sophisticated as well as street-wise, jazz subtle and not just blues drenched. As you listen to this mixtape, check out how often she makes the songs her own without whooping and hollering—which is not to imply that anything is wrong with shouting but which is to acknowledge there is more to making a joyful noise than screaming out your lungs.
Sometimes it’s in her pacing. Those hesitations, an occasional stutter, but also the notes she reaches that you never knew she could achieve. Then there is the subtle shifting she does in reading the lyrics, always intimating much, much more than the words literally say. You can tell from her tone that she is deeper than whoever wrote some of the lyrics. With Etta these standards are more than show tunes, more than entertainment.
Isn’t it marvelous, how she illuminates the ups and downs most of us know so well? She is not simply singing to us, she is actually singing us, laying out the deeptitude of our struggles to attain love and happiness. You want to talk that American talk, that “pursuit of life, liberty and happiness” talk, well listen to Etta James sing the shit out of the hard and soft of both the expressways and the back streets, the boulevards and the alleys. Damn, she even sings about the places where there are no roads, where you’ve got to make a way out of no way.
I love how she elevates these standards, rocketing way past elevator music into the sublimity of profound reflections on life and love in this wilderness named America. Just listen to her. Listen to how deliberately the music struts. Etta is willing to share all of her stuff every time she opens her mouth: the good of it, the bad of it, and, yes, even the ugly, all in a generally successful effort to achieve the beauty of truth telling.
What I really love about these tracks is that Etta spins these songs into something much, much more than they usually are. It’s super easy to overlook her when we consider major vocalists but I hope that this mixtape will recruit a slew of volunteers into the army of appreciators loudly singing the praises of Etta James.
* * *
A quick round-up of the mixtape.
The opening tracks represent the sound that people generally associate with Etta James: bluesy and hard hitting. Etta reaching down in that gearbox that is her larynx, double clutching and down shifting, bearing down hard as a fully loaded sixteen wheeler careening down a straight stretch off a high mountainside. The audience is as active as the band as Etta sings them into ecstasy.
And speaking of bands, on the live cuts that’s Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson (vocals, alto saxophone), Red Holloway (alto, tenor & baritone saxophones), Jack McDuff (organ), Shuggie Otis (guitar), Richard Reid (acoustic & electric bass). Paul Humphrey (drums). This is a top drawer aggregation that's equally accomplished playing blues or playing jazz. They offer unfailing support for a singer who could get by singing with rootie-poots but who really takes off when master musicians’ provide a sonic boost. The tracks were recorded on May 30-31, 1986 at Marla’s Memory Lane Supper Club in Los Angeles.
The next set of songs are from Etta’s Grammy winning Billie Holiday tribute album, Mystery Lady
. This 1994 recording won the 1995 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. It was probably the most surprising albeit well deserved jazz Grammy ever awarded. At first, second and third glance, Billie Holiday and Etta James probably seem stylistically incompatible but the truth is always deeper than the façade.
Billie and Etta have a lot in common in terms of life experiences, social backgrounds and “all or nothing” approaches to singing. Etta’s tribute album is an absolutely profound experience.
Moreover, like Billie, Etta is at her best when she is singing with musicians who can match her expressive and heart wrenching narratives. The band is Josh Sklair (guitar); Red Holloway (saxophone); Ronnie Buttacavoli (trumpet, flugelhorn); Kraig Kilby (trombone); Cedar Walton (piano); Tony Dumas (bass); Ralph Penland (drums, percussion). The arrangements are by Cedar Walton who is an alumnus of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
The third set is from my favorite of all of Etta’s albums. Time After Time
picks up where Mystery Lady
left off. I think the difference this time around is the presence of tenor saxophonist Eddie Harris, who was another devotee of Billie Holiday in addition to being an absolute monster technician on the saxophone. Chicago bred Eddie Harris had that heady mixture of a deep blues background buttressing a serious jazz approach.
Pianist Cedar Walton is again the musical director for an ensemble comprised of Josh Sklair (guitar); Eddie Harris, Herman Riley (tenor saxophone); Ronnie Buttacavoli (trumpet, flugelhorn); Kraig Kilby (trombone); Cedar Walton (piano); John Clayton (bass); Paul Humphrey (drums); Donto Metto James (shakers).
I’m listing the musicians because they all contributed so much to making this excellent music. Too often, they toil in the shadows, unacknowledged. Their work on these recordings deserves acclamation.
The closing set is from 1999’s Heart Of A Woman
and features James’ sons Sametto and Donto providing a modern bottom to jazz-oriented standards. The musicians in the studio are Josh Sklair (acoustic & electric guitar); Bobby Murray (guitar); Red Holloway, Jimmy Z (tenor saxophone); Lee Thornburg (trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone); Tom Poole (trumpet, flugelhorn); Pete Escovedo (horns, congas, percussion); Dave Matthews (acoustic & electric pianos); Mike Finegan (Hammond B-3 organ); Sametto James (bass, drum programming); Donto James (drums, drum programming).
I’ve never been a fan of smooth jazz but without even a hint of reservation, I’m clear: I like a lot of these arrangements. They are a rather endearing hybrid held together by a mighty voice whose whispers sling more weight than most people’s hollers.
What’s delightful to me is that the song selection includes some of my favorites but they are totally re-tooled for this effort that garnered a Grammy nomination for Etta. It’s a shame that these recordings are not more widely known, which is another reason I wish Etta had been tapped for the inaugural spot.
Etta James has a veritable treasure trove of recordings that merit wider exposure and these jazz sides in particular are totally satisfying. Obviously, I have a lot more I could write about this music but knowing when to stop is often more important than figuring out how to continue.
One final thought: some of us often proclaim we wish we were alive when so-and-so was on the scene; when, for example, Billie Holiday was doing her thing. Who would not love to have had the opportunity to bask in Billie’s artistry? But, you know what? Etta James is today’s Billie Holiday.
Etta James is both a survivor and a master. Let’s honor her. The very least all of us can do is listen to her music. And, hey, Mr. President, how’s about inviting Etta to the White House.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Etta James Mixtape Playlist
01 “Feeling Uneasy”
- Come a Little Closer
These tracks are from Blues In The Night Volume 1: The Early Show
02 “Medley: At Last / Trust Me / Sunday Kind Of Love”
03 “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)”
These tracks are from Mystery Lady (Songs of Billie Holiday)
04 “I Don't Stand A Ghost Of A Chance”
05 “You've Changed”
06 “How Deep Is The Ocean?”
07 “I'll Be Seeing You”
These tracks are from Time After Time
08 “Teach Me Tonight”
09 “Time After Time”
10 “My Funny Valentine”
11 “Willow Weep For Me”
12 “Night And Day”
13 “Someone To Watch Over Me”
These tracks are from Heart Of A Woman
14 “Say It Isn't So”
15 “My Old Flame”
16 “Good Morning Heartache”
18 “I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good”
19 “You Go To My Head”
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