A Letter to Etta James
Well, as of this morning, you’re in the hospital being kept alive with a breathing machine while your family battles over your estate. Ouch. Probably not what you had hoped your final days would look like. I’m really sorry that you’ve been suffering and I just wanted to take a minute to thank you, from the depths of my heart, for all the music, joy and sauciness that you have brought to the world.
The first and only time I saw you perform live was many years back at the Monterey Blues Festival. I was a record store newbie of 19 who was staffing the merch booth. You were the belle of the ball; the headliner that people had come from all over to see; the inimitable, legendary Etta James.
One of the perks of having a booth at the festival was that we were given one of the VIP boxes in the front row. Two at a time, we took turns watching the festival from the box. A co-worker, who was older and wiser, pulled me aside and said, “Don’t take your turn until Etta James. You won’t be sorry.” I didn’t, and I wasn’t.
It’s hard to put into words an unforgettable performance, but here goes. You came out to a sea of applause while your band, which included your baby-faced grandson on bass, got us all into the groove. You paraded and peacocked and strutted around like nothing I had ever seen. High energy rocking blues to tear-inducing ballads, you had the entire arena in the palm of your hand. You singled one guy out a few people down from us, and played with him the whole time; blowing him kisses, dropping your handkerchief for him, asking for his name. It was hilarious, and heart-warming. I remember marveling at how you made an enormous outdoor stadium feel like you were entertaining us in your living room. Perhaps it was the front row vantage point, but I had the sense that those in the bleachers were having much the same experience as I was.
I became a lifelong fan that day and started tracing your catalog backward. So many albums, so many great songs, so many epic performances. I found, as many do, the album At Last, to be a masterpiece, and got hung up on it for several years. Your tunes “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “Tell Mama” are favorites that I will enjoy for all of my days. But then I discovered some of your very early recordings, sung by an untested young woman who was making a go at a career in music. It was such a joy to hear who you were before you were a legend. Those recordings are a reminder of how short and sweet and sad life can be, and that we all dance with the blues.
Thank you so very much for the music, laughter and inspiration. I wish you a smooth transition from this life. Know that you have touched your fans deeply.
This article originally appeared on the Streetlight Records blog.