When I awoke the morning of January 20, 2012, I was very tired. Still half asleep, I placed my iPod on the dock in the bathroom. I must have (accidentally) hit random and “Down on the Street” by Etta James came on. I have been marathoning her albums on my headphones and hadn’t gotten to this album yet (Come A Little Closer).
When I heard that sick bass line I already knew I had heard this song before. I also knew that it was Etta. This was my first time hearing the album version. The place where I first heard it was at her House of Blues concert on June 30, 2002. I had missed her previous show as I was not yet 21. I was working at the Art Institute and the receptionist bragged that she was going to the concert. I perked up as I was a huge fan, but it turned out she knew very little about her. I remember thinking she didn’t deserve to go. If I was just a little older I could go too. I had to look forward and I vowed to see her next time.
Somewhere around that time I had read her (aptly titled) autobiography Rage To Survive and picked up her compilation Love Songs. The one-two punch of these made me a devoted fan. The life that she had been through was very tough. Reading about her hardships and the way she overcame them was inspiring. In particular, the difficult and destructive relationship she had with her mother. I first knew of Etta from the Rolling Stone Women in Rock book. Most of my favorites of the time were in there and I read the whole thing. There was a chapter on Etta and Ruth Brown. Reading about them made me want to hear their music and voices.
It was announced that Etta would be returning for a Chicago show. Thankfully, it was a month after my required birthday. I bought two tickets and took my mother. The concert was one of the most special evenings we ever shared. She wouldn’t let me take her to dinner, insisting the show was enough. I was now an adult and out on my own. I was sorting a lot of things out in my mind and life. I wanted to have a good relationship with her. Moments like that make me wish I had a photographic or videographic memory.
Etta was announced, the curtain was drawn and there she was. She was wearing a sparkly pantsuit and was (to quote John Waters) “big, blonde and beautiful.” She was still donning that bad ass cat’s eye make-up. It seems she had some health issues as she was in a barber type chair the whole time. She still had that powerful voice! The one that sounds like it was going to disintegrate mics on some of her recordings. The show was way better than I expected. I could not believe I was even in her presence. Here was a woman who was recording and rocking in the 1950’s. A living legend that made great music! She recorded some of the most passionate love songs that have (still) ever been heard. It really is a shame that most might only know “At Last” (Obviously a beautiful song but this being her “one song” makes me not like it as much). I’m more into “Sunday Kind of Love” and “My Dearest Darling.” However, I cannot stand the idea of ANYbody else trying to sing it.
There was a poignant moment when she dedicated “Sugar On The Floor” to her recently departed “mother.” She said that it was her favorite song. It was very intense, sad and long(ing). I loved it. There was also a raunchy moment during “I’d Rather Go Blind.” She used the mic in a phallic gesture telling her man she missed his…
It was unexpected and quite surprised me!
The day she passed away I went to my mom’s office during my break to meet my new nephew. I forgot what context it was in, but I was being an ass and singing “I’d Rather Go Blind” (I was NOT making fun of the song). When I got back to my office, my boss gave me the news a little while later. He walked past my desk and said “Etta James died.” I wish I hadn’t known at that moment. It really upset me and made me sad. I started to cry. Etta was in my thoughts that day already. I knew she had been ill and suffering for a while. There was something supernatural about that song playing when I was getting ready that morning. I thank you Etta for that perfect night I will never forget. I still have and treasure my autographed CD.
If you are uninitiated / unconvinced, I highly recommend starting with The Chess Box.