The Best of Etta James
Reviewed by Jorge Antonio Vallejos
If you do not know Etta James by name and face you have probably heard her music in films, coffee shops, at events, and on the radio. She is “The Queen of Blues” to many. She is the inspiration many Black artists had while growing up. And she is a legend that is still alive.
Being a woman of such historical importance it was a surprise she was snubbed by the Obama Administration a couple of years ago. Beyonce was given the nod to sing one of James’ songs at the inauguration of the first ever Black President of the United States.
A harder slap in the face is not possible.
James paved the way for singers like Beyonce. And she lived through the many horrific things Blacks endured for Obama to even need his famous campaign slogan “Change We Can Believe In”.
Regardless of all she has seen James has thrived and so has her music.
Eleven songs make up The Best of Etta James. At Last, her most famous song (this writer first heard it in the film Goodfellas as a teen) kicks off the CD. And it’s pure poetry:
“You smile, oh
and then the spell is cast,
and here we are in heaven,
for you are mine at last.”
James uses rhyme, repetition, metaphor, and life experience to bring her audience close to her subject. It is true that what we are taught love ‘is’ is not the reality but you still get sucked in by James’ voice and lyrics. Eyes close, heads nod, and people wish they were slow dancing with that special someone.
“I’d would rather go blind, boy, than to see you walk away from me, child,” sings James in I’d Rather Go Blind. Her ex is talking to someone else and then walks away with his new lady. How many of us have been there? Thought that? Felt that? If not blindness, than tears have come. The toughest of the tough have cried over someone. The toughest of the tough will continue to cry over others.
James sings about a feeling and word that is constantly misused and abused: love. There is no tackiness to her songs, just raw truth. If Van Gough is respected for cutting his ear off for a sex worker (Big Up to sex workers!) he was in love with, what’s wrong with feeling like going blind after love loss?
There is a boldness in James’ songs that is not present in today’s music. True boldness, not profanity masked as art or violence portrayed as bravery.
In Stop The Wedding you hear James sing on yet something else many of us wish we would have done, or were tempted to do. This writer has felt like it once, twice…a few times. It might be a joke to most but there is that small percentage of people who have tried to stop a wedding. James would be proud.
After hearing the beginnings of the Here Comes The Bride followed by the Pastor asking if anyone objects to the wedding to “speak now or forever hold their peace” you hear James kick in strong with a high pitched yell:
“Wait! Wait! Stop the wedding!”
James tells the story of a wedding happening out of spite. Hurt feelings turned to madness, revenge, and two hearts to be broken accompanied by a mellow piano beat. “You belong to me and I belong to you,” sings James.
The song builds slowly. James’s song is like a lullaby, a whisper, and is a plead to the man she loves not to make a mistake. James sings with good intentions not jealousy. Why marry someone you do not love to spite the one you do? Really, it’s three hearts to be broken, not two.
“No! No! No! No! Don’t do it! Stop the wedding!” ends the song the only way it can: powerfully.
And there is no other word to describe The Best of Etta James but powerful. Filled with heartfelt lyrics you wish there were more than eleven songs on the collection. It is a great start for people new to James. And it is a great reminder to long time fans of how important James is to music. Through slow songs, hard songs, whispers and yells, James fills you the way few artists can. While listing to The Best of Etta James and writing this review something had a hold of me; pun intended. Enjoy.
Tune into Black Coffee Poet Wednesday January 26, 2011 for an interview with young Black multidisciplinary artist Chaya Austin.