If there is one artist whose music I include almost every single time I play – It’s Etta James. Her range and repertoire are huge, so there’s an Etta James song for every mood. Her vocals always touch my heart and soul.
Here’s a playlist of my favourites so you can listen along if you would like.
Last year I read her autobiography, Rage to Survive, which I found inspiring and saddening in pretty much equal measures. If you are interested in learning more about blues music in general, and Etta James in particular, I’d recommend reading it.
Etta’s life was tragic yet triumphant. She didn’t have a straight-forward upbringing, which may have contributed to her heroin addiction, but she raised a family and continued to be in demand as an artist and performer throughout her life.
Her music has an emotional depth that few can match. She can get the party started or keep the last dancers on the floor.
I’d rather go blind
I’d Rather Go Blind (Original version, 1968)
When I first started blues dancing this was one of the first songs to make an impression on me. I listened to it on repeat for weeks.
There is an interesting back-story in that she co-wrote it with her friend Ellington Jordan, but as he was in prison when they wrote it, she gave songwriting credit to her partner at the time, Billy Foster, singer with the doo-wop group The Medallions.
Released as a B-side to Tell Mama, it tugs on my heart-strings and is perfect to play in the early hours of the morning.
Another version of this song that I LOVE.
The best way to appreciate this is by watching the video all the way through. I cry every time. (She’s crying too.)
Another wonderful version.
Blind Girl (1978)
This version is from her album Deep in the Night.
It has more of a country feel, with a sweeping crescendo towards the end.
I played this as the last song of my set on Sunday evening at Blossom Blues 2014, and loved dancing to it.
I wish it didn’t fade out so quickly, but WHAT a song!
My other favourites
Hound Dog (2000)
I love the original version by Big Mama Thornton, and play it in roughly equal measures with the Etta James version.
Gotta Serve Somebody (2000)
This gospel song written by Bob Dylan is given a full-on Etta funk treatment. Amazing.
Leave Your Hat On (1974)
First written by Randy Newman, this was one of Etta’s personal favourites.
Crawlin’ King Snake (2004)
This is a cover of an early Delta blues song with versions recorded by many artists from as early as the 1920s.
(Popularised by John Lee Hooker and Big Joe Williams, Etta recorded her version fairly late in her career, on her album Blues to the Bone.)
Cadillac Records is a wonderful film I’d recommend if you are interested in the rise of Chicago Blues and Chess Records during the 1950s and 60s. Great cast, awesome music, and so much period detail. Beyoncé’s portrayal of Etta is really something.
Here’s my favourite song from the film.
At Last (1960)
Released on Etta’s debut album with Chess Records in 1960, this was designed as a blues/pop crossover. Such a beautiful song, with orchestral backing and very lovely to dance to.