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Sunday, February 03, 2013

Etta James - At Last

So, today is Super Bowl Sunday, and the teams that are playing in this year’s go round are the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens.  And, to be honest with all of you, I really don’t care if I miss the game or not.  I’ve probably talked about this before, but I am not a fan of watching sports on television at all.  The way I see it, you see one touchdown, you see them all.  But to those of you who will be tuning into the game at some point this afternoon, I’m sure that you will have fun watching the plays, critiquing the commercials, and stuffing your faces with all the pork rinds and chicken wings you can get your hands on.

I, on the other hand, have a blog entry that needs to get done up.  And, since this month is Black History Month, you already know that the subject for this blog is going to be a major influence on the music scene, and that the subject in question just happens to also be African-American.

And, considering that today is the Super Bowl, I imagine some of you might be thinking that I have selected Beyonce Knowles as today’s subject.  It certainly makes sense.  Beyonce is the halftime performer at the big game this year, and I’m sure that millions of people will be watching her sing lipsynch perform at the game.

While it’s true that the 31-year-old Knowles has made a big impact on the music scene with both “Destiny’s Child”, and her solo singles which include “Irreplaceable”, “Naughty Girl”, “Crazy In Love”, “Single Ladies”, and “Halo”, she is not the subject for today’s blog.

However, Beyonce does share a link to today’s blog subject...and that link was subject to a little bit of controversy back in 2009.

Now, everyone remembers the beginning of 2009, right?  It did only happen four years ago.  Back in January 2009, Americans tuned in to watch the inauguration of the country’s first African-American president, Barack Obama, and whether you respect the man or not, you have to admit that it was an historic event in American history.  Well, in 2009, one of the performers at the inauguration ball was Beyonce Knowles, and the song that she chose to serenade the couple with during their first dance was a song that was first released in 1941, but became a smash hit in 1961...the same year that Barack Obama was born.

USELESS TRIVIA THAT ONLY I FIND INTERESTING:  My Uncle Kevin and Barack Obama have the same exact birthdate...August 4, 1961.  Not that you needed to know that...I just found it cool.  J

That song was a little song called “At Last”.  It wasn’t the first time that Beyonce had sang the song...she also performed the song in the 2008 film “Cadillac Records”, in which she starred alongside Adrien Brody, Cedric the Entertainer, Jeffrey Wright, and Eamonn Walker.  And, she sang the song playing the very person who made the song a huge success in early 1961.

ARTIST:  Etta James
SONG:  At Last
ALBUM:  At Last!
DATE RELEASED:  November 15, 1960

Now, “At Last” has been a song that has been covered by many, many people.  Even Etta James’ version was considered a cover version (the original version of “At Last” was released in the early 1940s).  But it can be argued that Etta James sang it best.

That’s not to say that Beyonce didn’t do a good job singing it.  I thought that she did a wonderful job putting her own spin on a classic song, and certainly when she sang it in the film “Cadillac Records”, James was overheard saying that she had thought that Beyonce had sang the song beautifully, and was more than impressed.

Less than six months later, James appeared to sing a different that basically had James throwing her under a bus!

Approximately a week after Obama’s 2009 inauguration, Etta James was performing a concert in Seattle, Washington where she let loose about her feelings about the performance, telling the crowd the following...

“I tell you, that woman he has singing for him, singing my song, she gonna get her ass whipped...I can’t stand Beyonce, she had no business up there singing my song that I’ve been singing forever!”

Can you say, “Ouch”?  Certainly an about face from just a few short months ago, when Etta James couldn’t say anything but kind things about Beyonce Knowles!  Or, was it?

James later admitted that the whole thing was a tongue-in-cheek joke and that she meant no harm towards Beyonce.  Her explanation for it was this...

“I didn’t really mean anything.  Even as a little child, I’ve always had that comedian kind of attitude.  That’s probably what went into it.  Nobody was getting mad at me in Seattle.  They were all laughing and it was funny.”

And, you know something, I believe that her intention wasn’t to be mean at all towards Beyonce or anybody else involved.  I really do believe that she was trying to be funny, and that it got a little bit blown out of proportion (as pretty much 95% of all Hollywood based gossip tends to get these days).  Though, Etta James did say that she did feel a little hurt that she wasn’t invited to the inaugural party.

At any rate, it seems hard to believe that Etta James’ life began in Los Angeles, California on January 25, 1938 under her birthname of Jamesetta Hawkins.  But, then again, I suppose we know now how she took her stage name...rearranging the syllables of her first name.

Jamesetta’s childhood was a rough one.  She was born to a single 14-year-old mother, and grew up never really knowing who her dad was (though she always suspected that he was legendary pool player Minnesota Fats), and she was shipped off to a series of foster homes due to her mother’s frequent absences from home.

When Jamesetta was five years old, she began vocal training under the tutelage of James Earl Hines, then the musical director of the Echoes of Eden choir, and became a regular performer at the St. Paul Baptist Church in south central Los Angeles.  But this also had a bit of a negative effect on Jamesetta, as one of her foster parents actually tried to profit off of her singing.  He would often have poker nights with his friends where they would get completely drunk, and he would often wake up Jamesetta in the middle of the night to sing for his friends (which proved even more embarrassing when you consider that in her childhood, Jamesetta was a bed-wetter, as told in the book “Rage to Survive:  The Etta James Story”).  This caused a lifelong reluctance to sing for anybody on demand...and when you consider what happened, can you blame her?

By 1950, Jamesetta was back in the care of her birth mother, and the two visited San Francisco’s Fillmore District, where a then twelve year old James immersed herself in the doo-wop culture.  By fourteen, she had formed her very first girl group, “The Creolettes”.  She met musician Johnny Otis during this time period as well, and Otis ended up taking special interest in “The Creolettes”, being a key figure in their eventual signing to Modern Records, the group name changing to “The Peaches”, and being the one who transformed Jamesetta Hawkins into Etta James.

The group’s first hit was in the form of an answer song to the 1954 hit “Work With Me, Annie”, 1955’s “Dance With Me, Johnny”.  The song hit the top of the R & B charts, and helped the group secure a spot touring with Little Richard as his opening act.

Etta James left “The Peaches” shortly after that, and embarked on a solo career, with her next release being “Good Rockin’ Daddy”, but all subsequent releases seemed to remain stagnant on the charts.  The struggle was so great that James opted not to re-sign with Modern Records when her contract expired in 1960, and instead signed on to Chess Records.

And, upon signing to Chess Records in the early 1960s, James had success with several singles including “If I Can’t Have You”, “Spoonful”, and “All I Could Do Was Cry”, which peaked at second place on the R & B charts.  In 1960, Etta James released her first full-length album, “At Last!”, and the album spawned three hit singles...”A Sunday Kind of Love”, “I Just Want To Make Love to You”, and of course, “At Last”.

Although “At Last” only managed to barely crack the Top 50 on the Billboard Charts, it became another #2 hit for James, and almost everyone would likely consider the song to be her signature hit.  Even Etta James herself would have told you that it was the song that helped cement her place in music history.  But, Etta James wasn’t the first person to sing it, and she obviously was not the last.  Some other artists who have covered the song aside from Beyonce include Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Ben E. King, Nat King Cole, Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey, Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchell, Jason Mraz, Cyndi Lauper, Elvis Costello, Michael Bolton, Aretha Franklin, Liza Minnelli, and Christina Aguilera.

In fact, Christina Aguilera ended up paying tribute to Etta James by singing “At Last” at her January 28, 2012 funeral.  Etta James passed away on January 20, 2012 following a battle with leukemia...just five days shy of her 74th birthday, and just three days after the death of the man who discovered her, Johnny Otis. 

But, really, even though it has been a year since Etta James passed away, her legacy will never be forgotten.  “At Last” may not have been originally performed by Etta James, but her version was one of the most well-known.  You certainly can’t take that away no matter how many times Beyonce Knowles sings the song. 

And besides, with a 1993 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a 2001 induction into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and six Grammy Awards, seventeen Blues Music Awards, and being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame twice, she will forever have a place in music history.

At last...

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