She Had the Will (Etta James, 1938-2012)

I’m playing Etta James today. Not her old stuff. I’m listening to two records that might not exist at all had she not been such a tough woman. I like her 50s and 60s stuff just fine, but for me, her music reached its peak when she was hitting bottom. We lost a lot of great musicians at the end of the 1960s, and we mythologize them and listen to their old records over and over. But Etta faced those challenges, and then some, and came through them, so we can not only listen to her young self, but her older and wiser self. And I think that deserves more respect than dying young.

By the end of the 1960s, blues and R&B were being shunted aside in favor of rock, and her long-time home label, Chess, was foundering (deservedly), forcing Muddy Waters to record idiotic psychedelic albums and losing many greats to illness and death. In 1974, she was one of Chess’s last hitmakers, but she was also in a psychiatric hospital trying to kick a terrible drug and alcohol habit. She got releases to go to the studio though, and recorded Come a Little Closer.

It could have been a disaster. James was so ill from withdrawal that she literally could not sing a word on one of the songs. The producer she was working with, Gabriel Mekler, was better known for his work with rock bands like Three Dog Night. But out of this adversity she delivered one of the best records of her career. It’s often belittled for its use of synthesizers and other mid-70s production cliches, but in many cases those choices work. And when they don’t, Etta brushes them aside like so many cobwebs.

The high point is right at the center of the album (the end of side one and start of side two, originally), beginning with her version of a song by Randy Newman (of all people), “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield.” I’ve never heard his original, but it’s a spectacularly sexy and creepy song. She sings it as only she could, sultry but threatening. She has you from the opening lines. The lyrics are simple (“Let’s burn down the cornfield / And we’ll listen to it burn.”) but there is a world of pain and sex in her voice. And it builds from there to an extraordinary dual synthesizer/guitar solo that proves wrong the idea that synthesizers have no place on blues albums.

Following that is “Power Play,” a classic kick in the butt of the sort she could deliver so well. And then comes the song she couldn’t even sing, “Feeling Uneasy.” It’s a slow blues, and she just moans wordlessly over the changes. It’s magnificent and about as “uneasy” as it gets. From that she goes into the hoary old classic “St Louis Blues,” but opens it with a gorgeous solo vocal, and then sings it with a chorus much the way Bessie did it originally. This album has stood up to years of repeated listening, ever since a member of blues-l sent me a cassette mix that included “Cornfield” and I made a point to track down the album.

But by the 1980s, she was in career limbo again, still battling addiction. But she came out of the Betty Ford Center, went down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and recorded Seven-Year Itch with a crack band led by Steve Cropper. She’s at her best with a good horn section, since little else has the power to go toe-to-toe with her voice, and the rest of the band is exactly as tight as you’d expect. She opens up with “I Got the Will,” the Otis Redding classic, and she’s not kidding. The fast songs (especially “Shakey Ground”) are irresistible and the slow songs let her stretch out like a big cat getting ready to pounce. When she sings “Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” you want to pack up and head out the back door before she gets there. The whole album would be worth buying just for what I think is the best performance ever of “Damn Your Eyes.”

Last week a harp player at a gig asked me if I wanted to come to a blues jam with him, and I said no, because amplified blues nowadays is usually just rock music without songwriting. But I remember doing “Shakey Ground” with the great NYC blues singer Christine LaFroscia and a band we called the Homewreckers, all players who know how to do blues and R&B right, and there is nothing like a good blues sung by someone who takes no prisoners. Etta never did. She fought her way through hells that most of us could never imagine, and came out the other side, and because of that strength, we have these amazing records. Thank you, Etta.

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