This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #65: At Last by Etta James.
In the pantheon of incredible black, female singers, there is Sister Rosetta Tharpe at the top because she started it all. But, then, there is Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday….all the way to the likes of Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, Whitney Houston and now, Beyonce. But, somewhere between the beginning of Rock and the start of Motown, came someone who is universally regarded as being a key player in establishing that transition from Gospel and Blues, to Rock, itself, and that person was Jamesetta Hawkins or, as she was better known, Etta James.
Etta James had a big, booming voice and a stage presence every bit as big. Her most well known song is “At Last” but, that wasn’t her only hit. She, also, had a lot of success with songs such as “The Wallflower (Dance With Me, Henry”…which was her first #1 hit on the R&B charts.) She also charted with, “All I Could Do Was Cry”, “Trust In Me”, “Almost Persuaded” and a song that had a resurgence in the last decade, “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” (which was sampled by Electronic Dance DJ and Star, Avicii, and became an integral part of his hit song, “Levels”).
Etta James had a tough life which, both, fuelled her desire to sing, as well as, affecting it negatively. As a young child, Jamesetta found herself in the care of Social Services and became a Foster child. During her placement with various foster families, Jamesetta suffered physical and sexual abuse that made her wary of close contact with others. As she became a teenager, her proclivity for singing started to show and she was encouraged to sing for others but, even that went awry in the Foster care system, as she would be forced to sing at all hours of the night for the drunken friends of her Foster parents who happened by. This caused her to develop a reluctance to sing “on demand” which is, sometimes, a necessary aspect of auditioning for singing jobs at clubs, etc.
However, she survived her youth and managed to find places where she could sing on her own terms, such as Churches and in clubs that were part of the Chitlin’ Circuit in the US at the time. It was while singing in these clubs that she was noticed by several musicians who helped her make contacts in the industry that, eventually, lead her to singing with the famous, Chess Records. Chess Records was the same company that had signed and promoted Chuck Berry in his early days. In fact, it was this peer-to-peer relationship that existed between Etta James and Chuck Berry that was the cause of me hearing her sing for the first time. In the 1980s, Chuck Berry put together a documentary/show for his 60th birthday entitled, “Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll!” All sorts of famous musicians helped out, such as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt and so on but, the person he introduced and brought to the stage with the greatest enthusiasm was Etta James. For his birthday, she sang the standard, “Rock n’ Roll Music”, backed by Robert Cray, Mr. Berry, Keep and Julian Lennon. She was a force of nature during that show. What a talent!
In Etta James’ middle years, she developed a strong addiction to heroin and, as a result of this addiction, she faced jail time and much rehab. Eventually, she resurfaced in the music world and was asked to be a consultant on a movie released in the early 2000s called, “Cadillac Records”, which was the story of Chess Records. In the movie, Beyonce played her. Beyonce claimed that she was never more nervous and unsure of herself as a performer than she was the day she sang, “At Last” in front of Etta James, herself. After she was finished, Etta James is reported to have hugged Beyonce and told her that she was beautiful and that her rendition was perfect. Beyonce claims to have never been more relieved in her life, too.
The ironic thing about that was that, as Etta James reached the later years of her life, she developed dementia. It was while she struggled with dementia that she witnessed Beyonce sing “At Last” as Barrack and Michelle Obama danced together on his Presidential inauguration night gala. Somehow, in the haze of dementia, James became highly critical of Beyonce’s performance and of the Obama Administration, in general. Many people believe that she wasn’t as upset at Beyonce so much as she was upset that someone other than her was singing her most famous song to the new President and his wife. Whatever the case, Etta James spent her final days wracked in bitterness. She passed away in 2012. The Reverend Al Sharpton presided over her funeral service. Stevie Wonder and Christina Aguilera both sang.
For all of the challenges she faced throughout the course of her life, the one thing that always shone through was the power and passionate nature of her voice. That Etta James was one of the best singers of all-time is generally accepted as truth. In fact, if personal connections signify anything, “At Last” was one of the songs that Keri and I had sung for us at our wedding. It is a special song for us, for the Obamas and for countless others, as well. While Etta James may have endured much during her life, she managed to give much in return. For that, we should all be grateful. For it is truly the measure of the calibre of a person when they can get knocked down so many times and yet, always end up giving and giving. Thanks, Miss Etta! You will always be remembered as one of the very best.
So, without further delay, her is the magnificent Etta James, with her signature song, “At Last”. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “At Last” by Etta James, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Etta James, can be found here.
The link to the video for the Etta James segment of the film, “Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll!”, can be found here.
The link to the video for the trailer for the movie, “Cadillac Records”, the story of Chess Records, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.