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Etta James (1938-2012) R.I.P.

Updated: Jan 19, 2021

“Like I say in the song, I’m blessed — blessed that God saw me through, blessed with the strength to sing my style, blessed knowing that the best music is honest and sincere and healing to the heart.” Etta James, from the liner notes of Time After Time.

In one of those strange convergences of life, yesterday morning I was shuffling through my CD collection after getting a bit tired of listening to the same CD for almost four months straight (Boz Scaggs’ inimitable and fabulous Speak Low, his bluesy-jazz album of old smokey standards from Johnny Mercer and Duke Ellington, et al. And so what did I end up choosing from out of a couple of hundred albums? Etta James’ 1995 recording, Time After Time. I was in an Etta James’ mood, plain and simple, and those of you who know her music know exactly what I’m talking about. It had been a very long week and a long day’s night lay ahead, news on the home-front wasn’t great, and I was feeling kinda’ blue. And when you’re feeling like that, you can do much worse than Etta James, who not only joins you in the mire and reminds you that you're not alone, but whose gravelly, sweet and sad toughness -- the very timbre of her voice -- will lift you back up on your feet again. Hers is the voice of those angels who populate the nightclubs in the back alleyways of Heaven (yes, they exist. They have to).

So imagine my surprise when I found out today that she’d died this morning in the company of her family. Turns out she’d been having an Etta James day, too. An Etta James year, in fact. An Etta James life. She’d fought the good fight all of her life, no doubt about it, and fought harder than most of us will ever have to.

Born to a 14 year-old mother, she grew up without a father and battled drug addictions and a bad taste in men much of her life. And yet, it was precisely these battles that served as the fodder for her soulful, rich music. You can’t have soul without the requisite suffering to go with it, and Ms. James had plenty of both. So I’ve been playing her music all day as a tribute to the musical titan she was.

Ms. James, as one of your fans I’m glad to be able to say that for no obvious reason other than it felt like the right thing to do, I pulled one of your albums from its sleeve and let your music fill the air in my home last night, just as you were preparing to say good bye. So may you take comfort and happiness in knowing that just before you left us and your death made the news, some random fan in Pasadena let you serenade your way out of here, and that you sounded really, really good, and that your life and light were speaking their way into another kindred soul. You’ve been a good companion, ma’am, and always will be. Godspeed, Etta James. And thanks.

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