Archive for Etta James

The Greatest Love Of All

Posted in Current Events, Music with tags , , , , on February 13, 2012 by greedycherry

Whitney Houston at the 37th Annual AMA AwardsYou know, it’s odd …. I seem to spend more time nowadays writing music obituaries on this blog than I do writing about actual music. I assure you that this is, of course, totally and completely unintentional (not to mention a damn shame). Quite often I have an idea of a neat subject I want to tackle, or a fabulous new song I want to promote, or a currently touring artist that I want to tell you more about, only to find out as I’m getting ready to sit down to write that some very influential singer or musician has unexpectedly died. I mean, I know people die and all, but this trend of talented vocalist passings is getting a little depressing now. Amy Winehouse, Etta James … now Whitney Houston.

Born August 9, 1963, Whitney Elizabeth Houston was blessed from the start with a voice almost any young singer would die for. Power, emotion, nuance, control, range … all of these things were indeed part of her arsenal, but the thing that made Whitney such a phenomenon was that these traits weren’t just present individually or interchangeably. The many facets of her talent melted into each other, augmenting and strengthening the whole, combining in a potent mix that gave her that magical thing which we often refer to as “it”. No one knows where “it” comes from, or how to define “it”, but we know “it” when we see it. Somebody opens their mouth, or picks up an instrument, or a pencil, or a paintbrush … and we are moved. We are helpless before this undefinable thing that takes hold of our hearts, and we cannot defend ourselves against it.

It’s that riff that makes your adrenaline move, the harmony that brings a tear to your eye, the lyric that puts a knife in your heart when you least expect it. When some artists create, they do it in a way that makes the difficult or arduous seem easy. You can hear a million soul singers tackle a song, for instance, and they might do a respectable or even really good version of it …. but someone like Al Green or Aretha Franklin can sing just one note of that song, and you are transfixed. You can’t look away. You are powerless to change the radio station, to perform another task, to remove yourself from the presence of “it”.

There is no doubt that some consider Whitney Houston just another dumb pop singer, and her catalog to be filled with vapid songs not worth being listened to … and I respect this point of view.  Some people just like what they like and hate what they hate, and you can’t change their minds or make them change their listening habits or preferences. But I like to think that there is talent beyond the songs a musician performs, an inner glow or fire that brings an artist to prominence in the first place. Sure, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” may not be the deepest song with the most meaningful, heartfelt lyrics ever, but I would argue that there’s no denying Whitney’s amazing voice and the strength of her performance in it. Anyone who’s ever tried to sing knows how hard it is to control the human voice and get it to do exactly what you want it to, and it’s like witnessing the raw power of nature itself to hear someone be able to effortlessly go from a plaintive whisper to a full-throttle belting, to take you from 0 to 60 with just a tilt of her head and a swelling crescendo. Some are born with that gift. Whitney was one of them.

Whitney Houston was beautiful. She was talented. She was blessed with an embarrassment of riches. Some would argue she pissed all of that away in the last years of her life, and that could indeed be a valid point of view to take. In the end, she was not able to find that “greatest love” she sang so movingly about; despite being loved by many, it could be argued that she didn’t really find her strength in that love. That she never could love herself enough to stay off the path to destruction, recognize her weaknesses, and ask for the help she needed is now, in retrospect, a harbinger of the sad events to come.

Her death is made all the more shocking by the fact that it never should have happened, that there was ample opportunity to pull herself together, lean on those who cared and had always been there, and rise back to full health and musical prominence. She could have done it, but, unfortunately, the tragedy of so many artists throughout history is that their demons eventually catch up to them and they pass from this mortal coil far too soon.

As far as opinions of her music, let’s keep in mind … any death is a shame, and the fact that a singular talent has now been removed from the game of life is something to mourn, no matter how you view the catalog they left behind. How many people do you know who are supreme talents, friends or colleagues or even complete strangers who make music that you find exceptional and moving? And if those people died tomorrow, would you remember all the dumb stuff they did in their personal lives, all the horrible habits they couldn’t overcome, all the crappy songs they made in-between the good ones …. or would you just go home and crank up the music they made that moved you, and close your eyes and revel in those memories they created for you and for the world they left behind?

Whitney Houston has passed away at the far-too-young age of 48. Regardless of what we find out about how she died in the days to come, let’s just remember that it doesn’t really matter. She left her songs, she made her mark … and her amazing voice will live on.

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At Peace … At Last

Posted in Current Events, Music, Music Video with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2012 by greedycherry

After a few weeks off from the ol’ blog here, I had actually planned to make a new post this week either talking about some great new music I had discovered recently or the new Van Halen single “Tattoo” (or a not-so-subtle combination of the two). Instead, due to current events, I thought I would spend my time today talking about Jamesetta Hawkins, who died on Friday at the age of 73.

Way back in 1937, as the story goes, in the sleepy little town of Los Angeles, California, a 14-year-old girl named Dorothy Hawkins met and ended up sleeping with a billiards player and hustler of Swiss origin who went by the nickname of “New York Fats.” Although Mr. “Fats” didn’t end up sticking around, Dorothy ended up pregnant, and therefore, in January of 1938, gave birth to a daughter she named Jamesetta. Unfortunately for her infant child, she apparently wasn’t a very attentive mother, often spending most of her time and effort on men and bouncing from relationship to relationship, and, subsequently, the young girl grew up mostly in the care of others. Jamesetta, sadly, came to refer to her mother by the moniker “The Mystery Lady.”

The silver lining in the grey cloud here was the fact that this young girl possessed a powerful singing voice, and many took note of this early on. Of course there was the obligatory church singing, where she was incredibly popular with the congregation, but in 1952, after moving to San Francisco, things in her life changed forever. Where her mother had spent her fourteenth year carrying and giving birth to a child, young Jamesetta spent hers taking her first big steps towards musical stardom.

Although the details remain fuzzy (but isn’t it that way with all of history?), what is known for sure is that famous rhythm and blues musician Johnny Otis heard Jamesetta sing and decided to take her under his wing. And one of the most important things he did for her happened shortly thereafter: he gave her a “stage name” by taking her first name, splitting it into two, and reversing the words.

Etta James was born.

Etta JamesHer first big hit, written by Otis and released in 1955, is probably best known to me personally as the first song of hers I ever heard (and that I would be able to tell you, “Oh, that’s a song by Etta James.”). “The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry)” (known and released originally as “Dance With Me Henry”, due to fear of censorship due to the strong innuendo) landed in my ear due to its inclusion on the “Back To The Future” soundtrack. It garnered many listens by me because of this, as “Back To The Future” was (and remains) my favorite movie of all time.

(Insert incredulous comments and rude jokes here. Thank you.)

“The Wallflower” rose to number one on the Hot Rhythm & Blues charts, and young Etta James enjoyed a nice period of success, even opening for Little Richard on his national tour that year. Of course, it wouldn’t be her only hit, and when she joined Chess Records in 1960, she released her first solo album, whose title track would probably become her most famous and well-known effort: “At Last”.  More enduring songs followed during her time at the label, and you probably know some, if not all of these: “Something’s Got A Hold On Me”, “I’d Rather Go Blind”, “I Just Want To Make Love To You” (some of you may be most familiar with the Foghat version), and “A Sunday Kind Of Love”.

Anyway, my point here wasn’t necessarily to give all the nitty gritty details of her complete career, but to share with all of you the incredibly interesting life of an incredibly talented woman. Sadly, I discovered most of what I now know about her life after it had ended, which is a bittersweet little phenomena in and of itself. (Ask yourself: why do musicians album sales go WAY up after they die? And why can’t we discover more about great talent while it’s still alive and in our midst?) Here are two of the most interesting things I came across while reading up on the unforgettable singer who was Etta James:

1.) Although no one has ever truly discovered the identity of her father, Etta always felt she knew who it was. “New York Fats,” whose real name was Rudolf Wanderone, was later rumored to be the inspiration for Jackie Gleason’s character “Minnesota Fats” in 1961’s movie “The Hustler” (a movie, by the way, based on a 1959 novel by Walter Tevis). Wanderone was so taken by this rumor (which the author Tevis denied until his dying day) that he dropped his “New York Fats” nickname and adopted the “Minnesota Fats” name for himself. He held the name for the rest of his life, becoming one of the most famous pool players in the world, cashing in on the name association with book deals and television appearances. Etta James did meet him once near the end of his life, in 1987, and he neither confirmed or denied that he was her father. According to James’ autobiography, he told her that he could not recall the details of his life at the time of her conception well enough to know whether or not he could have been the man who got her mother pregnant. (Her mother, however, had apparently told her that he was indeed her father.) Etta James was bequeathed an engraved gold watch belonging to him after his death.

2.) The man who “discovered” Etta James, Johnny Otis (who most famously wrote and performed the hit “Willie and the Hand Jive,” for you Eric Clapton or George Thorogood fans), died just three short days before she did, on January 17th.  He was 90 years old.

The last important thing I found out that I didn’t know was that Etta released one final album before her death, just a few months ago, actually.  “The Dreamer” was released the day after my birthday, November 8th of 2011…..and now I am insanely curious to hear it, even though every note that hits my ear will now be infused with a hint of melancholy.

Etta James has died, but her music lives on. Honor her memory by clicking on one of the links I’ve provided and enjoy some wonderful, timeless music. Then meet me back here at some point in the days to come…..I’ve got some great new music to share with you!