On Etta, divasPosted: January 21, 2012
The first time I heard Etta James, I was watching an Olympic figure skating exhibition on TV. Exhibitions, for you non-figure skating acolytes, are noncompetitive showcases. All the winners have already been decided, so there’s no pressure. Instead it’s an opportunity for skaters to do the things they aren’t allowed to do in competition–somersaults and backflips– things that I always thought would greatly enrich the occasionally tedious competitive routines.
Anyway, Kristi Yamaguchi was performing. As she loop-de-looped and double-axeled, I was in a steady trance, aurually transfixed by Etta James’s cover of the 1946 standard, ‘A Sunday Kind of Love.’ Her voice was so warm and personable; I felt like she was talking directly to me. She had a gift for timing, allowing those musical rests to go and on, so you could really get what she was saying.
‘A Sunday Kind of Love’ was one of those classic ’40s pop standards, meant to be sung everywhere, a moneymaker for the songwriters. Ella Fitzgerald and Jo Stafford sung it in their day, and though Ella is lovely, her interpretation sounds too glib. In comparison, Etta’s version is desperate, raging with desire–the schmaltzy three part accompaniment is gone for one thing–and that husky voice, it clamors for your attention. Even Dinah Washington, who had a fierce voice all her own, can’t hold a candle to Etta’s.
I won’t pretend that I know Etta James’s discography all like that. But you don’t have to know her obscure stuff, to be fully aware that she was one of the great, original voices of the past century. I normally don’t even write these sorts of appreciative pieces, but as I’ve been listening to some of her songs and watching YouTube videos of Whitney, Mariah and Beyonce, Etta James’s musical uniqueness becomes even more apparent.
Etta James lacked the polish of a Whitney or Mariah. She didn’t do the vocal acrobatics that so many singers these days are guilty of (though it does seem like the years of rampant melisma are behind us, in favor of robotic, exchangeable singers like Katy Perry and Rihanna, who provide a pretty face for the industry workers that craft them). But what powerful storytelling! Her own life, so ridden with the sorts of travails that seem almost cliche in their awfulness, made her the perfect front for the blues. It’s awful to think that many people will only remember her as the scrawny old woman who hated on Beyonce.
Etta James was a true diva, a word that has been tossed around so much it’s lost its effectiveness. Still, it works here. Etta was a diva, not just in a technical sense (a diva means a distinguished female singer) but with all the hustling, attitudes, airs and selfishness that have come to be associated with the term.
It’ s easy to consider Adele the most natural contemporary heir to Etta. Beyonce played Etta and played her well in the criminally underrated Cadillac Records, but on the whole, her voice is too mellifluous. But Adele has the raw, natural power, is an Etta afficionado and has broken records just for sitting on her butt and singing.
Still, I’d like to nominate someone else. She was a contestant on a singing competition. Maybe you’ve heard of her. Her name’s Rachel Crow.
The physical resemblance between Rachel and Etta is uncanny. Same chubby cheeks, same hint of a double chin, same expressive eyebrows. Crow’s life story already has its share of tragedy–she was apparently born in a crack house, which only makes the parallels stronger. She has the same feisty spirit, and passion for singing–a passion that can cause spontaneous full-fledged sobbing when said passion is denied.
But the similarities are really in the singing. Crow rips into Etta James’s ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ with a power and emotion, you don’t expect from a 13-year-old. Fears of young -girl -posturing are assuaged when you see the desperation in Crow’s survival reprise of the song. She wanted to win so badly. Can you imagine what this chick will sound like in a few years? I shiver in expectation. She’s a belter with the best of them and she’s not addicted to the melisma that seems to cripple so many young stars. If she continues to build that voice, capture that power, then she’ll be singing those blues like the best of them.
Though of course, not to sound trite even though I already do, there will always be only one Etta.