May 20, 2015

Etta James

I've heard that my being an Aries gives me something of a predisposition to rooting for the underdog.

Before Etta James died, I felt the same way about her like I do most artists who are not as revered to my liking.

In the late 90s/early 2000s, I stepped away from hip hop to explore the roots of rap music. Similar to my discovering and learning acts like Jimmy Castor Bunch, I got more familiar with Atlantic, Stax/Volt, Invictus and Motown music.

I was fortunate to have found a lot of music back then and The Essential Etta James was among my finds. The 2CD compilation presents her biggest songs from the early 60s to early 70s.

The interesting thing about the collection is that it presents two distinct sides of her career at that time. Disc 1 shows her following in the footsteps of Dinah Washington with At Last at the peak of her powers. Disc 2 presents the more entertaining Etta for me.

My research into Etta James' life revealed her battles with drug abuse rival those of rock icon Janis JoplinJoplin's legend was further cemented by her death. James was recording at that time but I believe was again overshadowed by another of her vocal contemporaries.

I thank rapper Def Jef for making me first aware of Etta James by having her sing on his Dropping Rhymes on Drums. In 1989, I saw her in the video belting her vocals but had no concept of her career. It would take my getting my hands on that 2CD compilation to bring it all home.

Although the feud didn't make James look too good in the media, in retrospect, I understand how and why the Beyonce/Etta James feud came about. At Last is Etta James' signature song and, metaphorically speaking, swan song as well. In an ideal world, the only person that should have sang the song for the Obamas would have been Etta James.

In a strange twist of fate, the fracas helped bring Etta James to prominence. Not too long afterwards, the Flo Rida single Good Feeling would employ her vocals as sample for a modern-day dancefloor anthem.

Near the end of Diplo's Igloofest set, he played Etta James' original Something's Got A Hold On Me. When I heard her larger-than-life vocals blaring over the speakers days after her death, I was flooded with nostalgia.

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