Last week, Etta James was heavy on my mind.
I was visiting my homeland of Trinidad, soaking up the sun and sand and having a blast with my family and old friends. Even in the midst of that, there was Etta. “Hey, have you heard this Flo Rida song?” my brother asked. Good Feeling is on the radio what seems like every five minutes in Trinidad, yet not once did I hear a DJ mention that Etta James was the woman singing the hook.
Tough, tender, rough and sweet. Her music became the soundtrack to so many first dances. So many magical moments in so many lives, all unified by Etta’s rendition of At Last.
This song was played at my wedding, and I’m sure it was played at many of yours as well. There’s an honesty in her delivery. When she sings of the thrill she had never known, she lets us all feel that thrill as well. That was the gift Etta James had. She could make you FEEL her.
Etta didn’t write these songs – I’d Rather Go Blind was written by Ellington Jordan, but there’s nobody who could ever touch Etta’s version of it.
Where does soul come from? Where does the grit and the feeling of the blues comes from? Judging from the lives of many of the genre’s finest musicians, maybe it’s born from pain. Maybe the roughest parts of your upbringing add that resonance to a singer’s voice. One thing’s for sure, Etta James did not have an easy life.
From her birth until her death there was struggle and pain and hard times. And that struggle came right through her inimitable voice, regardless of what she was singing about.
Even a song like Something’s Got a Hold On Me resounded with tenacity.
Towards the end of her life, Etta was the center of rumors and all of them were sad. We knew she was ailing. We knew she was in the hospital. There was no confirmation of how aware or how present she was – there were reports of her suffering from dementia as well as leukemia. Etta held on as long as she could, and even though it is doubtless that her final days were awfully sad, she passed away surrounded by her family, and those who loved her, with all family feuds put to rest.
This post should have been written a week ago, but the feeling of loss remains as sharp to me now as it was last Friday. According to CNN, there will be a public viewing on Friday evening in Inglewood, California, and a private burial this Saturday morning. And Etta’s music will continue to stir up those feelings of loss and pain, even moreso than ever before.
RIP, Etta James. You will be missed by your fans around the world, but your music will never, ever be forgotten.
This post included some of my favorite Etta James songs. Which are your favorites?