Etta James | ParkRecord.com

Etta James

by Jay Meehan

Henry, you ain’t movin me,

You better feel that boogie beat,

And get the lead out of your feet&

Etta James "Roll With Me Henry"

Jamesetta Hawkins’ brand of sass featured a sublime in-your-face dignity long before she became Etta James and, as a teenager, penned a reply to Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ sexually suggestive hit "Work With Me, Annie." Johnny Otis picked up on it immediately at an impromptu audition by James and her vocal trio out back of the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. The young Etta was soon on her way.

Being way too risqué for the cultural sensibilities in 1954, the ribald ditty wouldn’t escape the R & B charts and cross over to mainstream America until it had been re-titled "The Wallflower" and the "hook" changed to "Dance With Me Henry." It would be as a ballad singer, however, that, over the years, she would nuzzle her way into our hearts.

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Through five decades of extreme highs and lows and trials and tribulations — including drugs, weight issues, and godawful men — her warrior spirit has pulled her through. Her legend, both historical and contemporary, has transcended both "blues" and "R & B" to embrace genres of every emotional truth. To this day, her voice flat-out stuns! It arrests! It captures and captivates.

A survivor of the highest order, Etta James possesses a "rage to survive" – not ironically, the title of her autobiography. A member of both the Rock and Roll and Blues Halls of Fame, the 68-year-old icon continues to spread the vibe. She left the audience awash in sultry soul last year at the Capitol Theater in Salt Lake, and, no doubt, will repeat the cleansing ceremony this Friday night at Deer Valley.

Her voice bares her life for all to see& and, most especially, feel. There are huge components of pain and strength and they emerge so pure into the collective consciousness that her struggles become ours. Outside the art, however, there is little dwelling upon her dark side of life.

She has passed through and emerged on the other side of heartache, if not unscathed, at least unbroken. And, with the help of a gastric bypass intervention, she has reportedly dropped 200-pounds and is now once again able, as she implored her "Henry" in song those many years ago& to "feel that boogie beat, and get the lead out of (her) feet."

Now, when her band breaks into "Come to Mama," mama swings like she hasn’t been able to in years. In fact, body language and movements have returned as a big part of her shtick. Be forewarned! Etta is no shrinking violet! She flat-out gets down — the lead in her feet long gone. She’s still sassy and she gets her point across.

Last time through Utah, she showcased the explosive, powerful, and, then, recently released, "Blues to the Bone." This time around, she’s more than ready to strut her stuff to her latest effort, one entitled "All the Way." Chock full of highly interesting covers of Simply Red, John Lennon, James Brown, Prince and Marvin Gaye, this one has "Peaches," a longtime nickname, jumping for joy.

"For the first time in my 54 years of recording, I really had control over an entire album, start to finish," she celebrates from her Web site. "And that feels really good. I got to make an album that I can listen to and say, ‘I really like this record.’ This is an album of songs that I’ve always loved, tunes that I heard and thought, ‘Wish I could have been the one to do that one first.’"

It will be interesting to see what type of musical backing she is traveling with on this tour. If it’s her normal spare combo featuring her sons Donto and Sametto, the inherent leanness of the arrangements should allow for the classical Etta James voice to soar over the evening.

That most special voice, now deepened and coarsened with time, brings to mind the more complex, textured nuances of Billy Holiday late in her career. Whatever is missing vocally due to the tolls exacted by years of hard living, is more than made up for by the more seasoned interpretations of vocal artists who have been there and done that.

These renderings oftentimes include a more poignant weariness and understanding than those brought to the table by ingenues with similar material — not that innocence and naiveté, by themselves, do less of a job getting inside the throes of passion and pain. And there is no better proof of this thesis than the awe-inspiring adolescent recordings of both Etta and Billie.

From a gospel prodigy and radio performer at the age of five to the most recent recipient of the Ella Fitzgerald Award for "jazz singers with improvisational skills, originality and uniqueness of voice," Etta James is truly, to borrow a lick from Duke Ellington, "beyond category."

One of her many recordings resonated above all others, however, and that would be her quite astonishing cover of the love ballad "At Last." When those two syllables are produced by the virtuoso vocal instrument that is Etta James and, out of nowhere, splash upon the blue void, it’s "chicken skin" time. Goosebumps have their way.

Etta’s influence upon the historical vocal landscape is pervasive. From Janis Joplin and Diana Ross to Bonnie Raitt (who will also perform at Deer Valley with Keb Mo on Aug. 30) and Susan Tedeschi, she has been a model at keeping the faith and surviving the rigors of an artistic life in that oftentimes unforgiving neighborhood called "the blues."

She is a piece of work, this Etta James lady. Or as Ms. Raitt put it a year or so back in a Rolling Stone article, "Etta James is simply one of the best singers I’ve ever heard. She’s ferocious — sassy and incredibly sexy. Not sexy in a conventional, dolled-up way like, say, the Supremes. Etta is earthy and gritty, ribald and out there in a way that few performers have the guts to be." Just feel that boogie beat and get the lead out — Friday evening at Deer Valley.

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