As you may know by now, legendary soul singer Etta James passed away today from lukemia-related illness. The woman had a voice of gold -- she was best known for singing the blues, but was also able to tackle any strand of American popular music and make it her own, with gusto. From rock & roll to R&B, blues, country, gospel, jazz, and pure pop and soul, she could do it all.
I had the privilege of seeing Etta perform live back in the summer of 2005 when I lived in New Orleans, working for Offbeat Magazine (pre-Katrina). She was lively, spry, and shocked us all with her blatant sexuality and filthy mouth. In short, it was a helluva concert.
Here's my writeup of this show, which was published in the August 2005 issue of Offbeat.
07-10-05, Etta James & the Roots Band, House of Blues:For 67, Etta James has still got enough classy sass and attitude to work her audience into a whooped-up frenzy. Shakin’ her ass and flickin’ her tongue like it was 1965, Etta was like the cocktail-party-lovin’ grandma that you’re embarrassed to have. With an electric, ebullient atmosphere flowing through the eclectic crowd of mixed ages and races, the Roots band started the show with an explosion of funky instrumentals. Etta soon strutted on stage with no introduction, and dove into her catalog of bluesy soul. Though she is no longer the big, boisterous woman she once was, (she’s now skinny and attractive), she has retained her trademark low, guttural moan of longing. And while her delivery has lost some of its forcefulness due to weight loss, she could still let her soul fly, accompanied all the while by her band's thick n’ chunky accompaniment.
Though she sat in a chair for most of the show, she nevertheless delivered the goods, getting up periodically to strut around and work the crowd with her confident, soulful sexuality. In a set that was sometimes gritty and other times smooth, Etta sang about love, heartbreak and yearning, mourning her way through “Blind Girl,” “At Last,” and “Damn Your Eyes,” and grunting and scatting through “Feel Like Moaning” and “Medley for Otis,” which included “Hard to Handle” and “Can’t Turn You Loose.” Her thick, throaty growl spread love and lust around the room, spurring couples everywhere to embrace and rub each other, especially for the encore “Sugar On the Floor,” a warm, sad blues in which Etta poured her soul out about being down and out, climaxing in an emotional euphoria which was the clear highlight of the night. It’s always a privilege to witness a true legend excel at their craft, and Etta went above and beyond on this night, injecting some real heartfelt soul into an otherwise typical Sunday evening.
Here's Etta spittin' the mean down-low soul in her 1967 hit "Tell Mama:"
Her moan was unmistakable, paving the way for the success of future singers like Janis Joplin and the like. Here she is performing “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” on the TV show The!!!! Beat in 1966.
Simply amazing. She had a real way of hitting that spot deep down inside you. R.I.P, Etta.