Saturday, January 21, 2012

She’s not just a Beyonce clone

In some ways, Etta James was my favorite singer who came out of the old Chess Records scene on the South Side.

But that doesn’t mean I had “At Last” running through my brain on Friday, upon learning that James died in the morning hours in a hospital in California.

IF ANYTHING, MY favorite song of hers was “Don’t Cry Baby.” Although what I also liked about James was that she was capable of so many styles of song. One never knew exactly what to expect when she would sing.

Just listen to her cover of the raunchy old blues number, “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” and you learn that she wasn’t just about sweet, sickly, saccharine ballads. Then again, James’ life was filled with raunch, pain and suffering – some self-imposed by narcotics abuse.

Which is why I think it kind of sad that James’ career at the end got defined because of “At Last,” which was the song that got played up in that film Cadillac Records, a semi-fictional take on Chess Records where actress Beyonce Knowles portrayed James.

Remember how offended she got when Knowles was invited to perform at one of the 2009 presidential inauguration balls to sing “At Last” instead of her?

TOO MANY PEOPLE preferred the fictional take of that song, rather than the real thing (which in my mind is even more depressing than some two decades ago when some people took to Los Lobos’ cover of the song “La Bamba” over that version by Ritchie Valens – the one that was actually a late-1950s pop music hit).

Which is why I chuckled all those years ago when James threatened to “whip” Beyonce’s booty for singing what she considered to be HER song, and couldn’t help but remember that moment on Friday.

James was joking, sort of, even though I’m sure she wouldn’t have objected to being a part of The Scene that swore in Barack Obama to be president.

In all, it has me wondering how many people are thinking of the news of James’ death merely in terms of the woman that Beyonce portrayed in a movie. Or worse yet, maybe they think somehow it is Beyonce who has passed on.

UNLESS THEY MERELY think of James as the “Opening Act” for the Rolling Stones back in the 1980s – which strikes me as the still-worthwhile performer opening for the over-the-hill has-beens (I’m one of those people who thinks the “Stones” ceased being interesting after, about 1969, and who also thinks the Beatles were more interesting – a debate for another date).

Then again, too many performers from the Chess Records scene had careers that were overshadowed by white imitators.

In my mind, any woman whose performing career lasted for more than a half-century and was a significant part of the scene that emanated from 2120 S. Michigan Ave. deserves to be thought of with more respect than being confused with a performer who (in 50 years) may not even be remembered.

Which is why I have spent some time in recent weeks wondering what I should write when the moment came that Etta James departed this existence. For she was hospitalized right around Christmas and doctors made it clear that she was not expected to recover from her conditions – which primarily consisted of Leukemia but also included dementia.

THAT IS A sad and depressing way for anyone to go. But those musical fans who realize that there is material worth listening to that was recorded prior to, say, September had their chance to brace themselves for her demise.

Etta James, who even at 73 years of life, somehow seems like she died too soon. Rest In Peace.


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