I became an Etta James fan in kind of a backwards way. Being quite the dedicated Eurythmics fan back in the 80’s, I even paid attention to their quirky little side projects. One of these was the soundtrack for a 1989 movie called Rooftops, which I never saw but was apparently fairly awful. Dave Stewart did some songs for it, and one of these was a track called “Avenue D”, on which Etta was the vocalist. I didn’t really know who she was, aside from the fact that I recognized her name and knew she’d been around a while. I did read a little article saying something like, “Dave Stewart does his best work when paired with a soulful singer, and James certainly fills the bill.” I was at NYU at the time — I actually remember listening to the 45 at Tower Records, liking the song, and buying it. I really dug her performance on that song. I looked into her a little more (which in those pre-Internet days meant just paying attention to what records of hers were in the stores), and found that she had done a comeback album the previous year called Seven Year Itch. A friend and I split the cost of the cassette, and I really liked that too. I bought her next couple of records, then lost track of her for a while.
10 years or so later, I became conscious of “At Last”, again in a backwards way — Stevie did a cover of it at a benefit concert where everybody sang standards. I fell in love with the song then, and heard Etta’s version later in the movie Pleasantville, and loved it again. Still, I never got around to pursuing her further, until this past Christmas, when I put The Essential Etta James on my Amazon wish list, and received it. I’d been listening to it a lot in the car when I heard that she was coming to Boulder in concert. I decided that I needed to go, and I found a fantastic ticket online: 2nd row aisle seat.
When I got there, I was thrilled to find that it was indeed one of the best seats in the house. I had a perfect sightline to everything, and was wonderfully close. There was an unannounced opening act, which was a drag — I’d asked Laura to cover childcare so I could get to the show on time. If I’d known, I’d certainly have come much later. Anyhow, after that, stagehands started setting up Etta’s stage, including a big comfy leather seat with the word “Etta!” inscribed on the front. At 9:00, her band filed onstage, along with somebody who didn’t introduce himself. He greeted the crowd, said “Miss James is in the house!”, and then introduced The Roots Band. (Not The Roots, who appear on Jimmy Fallon’s talk show, but rather just a bunch of touring musicians.) It was cool — a horn section, two guitarists, keyboard, bass, and drums. So then The Roots Band proceeds to vamp for 10 minutes.
Finally, Etta herself comes out, sits on the chair, and opens with “Come To Mama,” a song from Seven Year Itch that I’d known previously when Bob Seger recorded it (as “Come To Papa.”) In Seger’s hands, the song has a clear sexual subtext. Coming from James, the subtext becomes supertext, with lyrics like “If you feel like a horse chomping at the bit / Call my number, 777-6969, I’ll get you a fix.” But lyrics aside, OH MY GOD. It was easily the most sexual performance I’d ever seen, and I’ve seen both Tori Amos and Liz Phair (the latter of whom suffered a wardrobe malfunction that exposed her bare breast to the audience for the better part of a song.) Etta sang the entire song while absolutely pawing herself, and I mean her entire body, giving special emphasis to lines like “I’ve got your favorite toy / Guaranteed to bring you joy.” We are talking about a 71-year-old woman here, a grandmother, whose son is actually in the band, as her drummer. It was, to say the least, a little shocking. I wasn’t really bothered by it (though as a friend of mine pointed out, would you want to watch your mother doing that night after night?), but I was pretty floored. She continued in that vein the entire show. She never stood up, but her hands never rested much either. When singing “I’d Rather Go Blind,” she elaborated: “Sittin here thinkin’ of your kiss, and your… mmmmm, you all know what I’m talkin’ about.” And the song after that was called, “I Want To Ta-Ta You, Baby.”
While Etta’s libido has never waned (at least if her stage shtick is to be believed), I’m afraid the same can’t be said for her mind. For one thing, she clearly thought she was in Canada. “It’s been a long time since I’ve played in Canada!” she said. “I’m so happy to be back!” I thought she was joking at first, but then in the next song, she introduced her guitarist with, “This is Joshua. He’s Canadian, too!” She also introduced “I’d Rather Go Blind” by saying, “Here’s a song my sons and I wrote together.” Now, that song was first recorded in 1969, when James was 31 years old. The Internet doesn’t seem to want to tell me when her sons were born, but it does tell me that the song is co-credited to Ellington Jordan, not Donto and Sametto James. Oh, and then there was the long introduction where she said she was going to do a song by one of the baddest chicks of all time, Janis Joplin, and that song is called, “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” Written by Randy Newman. In 1972. Two years after Joplin died. All I could do was shake my head and laugh.
Her voice, though, still sounds amazing. She kept stealing glances at the lyric sheet next to her, but that didn’t stop her from nailing every single note. She also had a terrific stage presence, despite remaining seated the entire time. She was always playfully, bawdily bantering with the audience, even as she was performing songs. In “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” after she sang the line, “Suspicious minds are talking / They’re trying to tear us apart,” she would very clearly mouth the words “FUCK THEM.” It was hilarious.
Unfortunately, while the music was great, I didn’t get to hear it for very long — at 9:55, she said good night, and walked off stage, only to immediately drive back on astride a little red Rascal scooter. She sat back down in the chair and sang “At Last”, sounding phenomenal. And then… that was it. She left, stage lights came up, just an hour after the band had come on. That was very disappointing to me, as the ticket hadn’t been cheap. I quite understand that it’s probably hard on her to play very long, but if the length of your show is going to be much less than is conventionally accepted, your ticket price should be well below the standard too.
All in all, it was one of the strangest shows I’d ever seen. I loved the music, and was greatly amused by the rest. But I sure wish I’d known to come late, and been ready to leave early.