Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sweetest Peaches: In Praise of Etta James

Happy holidays.

I don't believe in Christmas miracles, but if I did, I'd be praying for one to save Etta James. The iconic 73-year-old rhythm and blues singer is terminally ill, suffering from leukemia, Hepatitis C and dementia. The online media already erroneously reported her passing in August. Now it's only a matter of time.

I'm not sure what song I was listening to when I first fell for James. It certainly wasn't "At Last," the one for which she is perhaps best known, which, honestly, never quite did it for me. It was more likely "Tell Mama" or "I'd Rather Go Blind." Astonishingly, "Tell Mama," the 1967 single that peaked at No. 23 on Billboard's Hot 100, is as high as James ever got on that chart. Katy Perry can score five No. 1 hits from one album, and James never even made it to the Top 20!

"At Last" only managed to limp to No. 47 in 1961. One wonders what America was thinking back then. Perhaps they felt safer sticking to the considerably less gritty (read: white as the driven snow) sounds of James's contemporary Connie Francis, who racked up an incredible string of hit singles in the late '50s and early '60s. Great as "Who's Sorry Now" and "My Happiness" might be, compared to the best of Etta James, they're more fire than flame.

Eventually, James did get her due: iconic status, entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a big-screen portrayal courtesy of Beyonce in the 2008 film Cadillac Records. My favorite James song isn't one that's particularly well known: "Losers, Weepers (Part I)," a 1970 single that only made it to No. 94 on the Hot 100. Perhaps its low chart placing was due to the general lack of appreciation for James during her most active years. Or maybe it was the song's touchy subject: James snatches up her pal's ex after the friend dumps him. When her gal pal comes crawling back, looking to reunite with her ex, James resolutely stands by her new man. No way in hell!

I'd never do anything like that, but listening to James tell her BFF the facts of love and life is three minutes of riveting. That song, and so many others with which James blessed us, will live on long after she's gone.

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