Today I learned that my all-time favourite blues singer, Etta James, had finally succumbed to a long and painful bout with Leukaemia. Although I knew the end was near, that she was battling Dementia among other ailments that finally overtook her life, and later ended it, it still took me by surprise.
I am not ashamed to admit I had a little cry over learning she was finally out of pain, and in God’s hands.
I know, it sounds odd that I’d shed a tear over a person I have never met, but like a few others I’ve cried over throughout these years, I truly felt like she was a cherished friend.
I had a bit of a bawl when Karen Carpenter succumbed to complications from Anorexia in the eighties. She was a constant companion throughout my childhood, much like Olivia Newton-John was. I welled up when Gene Kelly finally passed. He was my inspiration during my brief career as a dancer, and was the reason I wanted to dance professionally in the first place. And I cried when Laura Branigan died of a brain tumour in her sleep. She represented a period of my misspent young adult years. I loved every record she put out, and mourned when I learned there would never be another song sung with her one of a kind voice.
But Etta was someone special. She held a very unique place in my heart. You see, Etta was my introduction to the blues. I remember my mother had a scratchy old record without a sleeve in her record collection, “Etta James Top Ten” . First song, as is posted in large letters on the album cover, “Pushover“, was the one I played to death when Mama wasn’t about. Only later did I start investigating the rest of the album. I found myself totally loving every song track on that old album.
Then one day, the album vanished. I always assumed Mama caught wind of me playing her record and hid it to keep it from being further ruined with my cheap record player. I did miss that album.
It was years later that I spotted an Etta CD with this complete song list at a record store. I couldn’t get my money out fast enough. And it’s a fair bet that I drove my poor ex insane with the disk. I played it constantly. Likely gave him grounds for making my life hell, seeing as I bestowed the same giftie on him.
But, despite his loathing of my overplayed CD, he saw fit to gift me with an Etta CD. I played “Time After Time” until his poor ears bled. And over the years, I’ve added to that collection. Loved me some Etta.
When “Cadillac Records” came out, my ex asked me if I’d like to join him at a small theatre to see the film. I have to tell you that watching Beyoncé play a thinner, more glammed up Etta was a treat. Despite her not really deeply resembling Etta, she did catch the nuances of Etta’s style pretty well. Certainly a well infused performance, exceeding my expectations.
I read Etta’s autobiography “Rage To Survive” some years earlier, and really felt a great deal more connected with this wonderfully open creation from God. She spoke of the horrors she’d endured throughout her life, stuff that would have killed just about anyone else, about her love for her “secret angels”, or in plain English, gay men, and how she deeply loved and admired them for being who they were, despite the odds. I honestly believe she felt as she did due to the fact that she faced as much adversity and prejudice throughout her life as most gay men at that time did. Also, she always received much better treatment from us “softer” men than she did from the supposed “real” men.
Gave me another reason to love her. Deep down, I wanted to be one of her secret angels. I suspect we’d have a lot of war stories to exchange.
Etta is, and will always be, my favourite blues singer. Nothing this woman recorded is less than not only her very best, but has so much more feeling than sometimes the lyrics warranted. She was the perfect blend of Ella, Billie and Dinah, yet managed to put a completely new and unique singing style out on the radio waves. And the world fell in love.
Etta was so much more than “At Last “. She was the embodiment of grit, guts and glory. She was a fighter. Etta was a survivor. And most of all, Etta could make you feel, deep down, every nuance of pain and pleasure she had within her own life.
No one will ever replace her sound, or be her equal.
Girl, you keep God smiling now that he’s called you home. We down here will remember you always.