There are certain people whose names are an incantation. Speaking them evokes something magically intangible and instructive about the effort of being here. The joy, the sorrow and the precious fleetingness. The personal eternity defined by the journey from the cradle to the grave. There’s an air of sparkling danger about these names. They’re carried in your pocket like a rabbit’s foot, a gentle devastation doubling as a charm. Bessie. Billie. Nina. Etta. These names aren’t tragic. They’re the blues. They’re jazz. They’re the manifestation of soul. They’re what happens to us when we hear a whistle blow in the distance or walk home alone under the cloak of a mellow rain, making eye contact with every stranger, announcing our essential fragility though it may appear to be a fuck you.
This was Etta James.
She was not polite. She was not a “lady” because she knew that ladies can’t do what they want to do: like sometimes love too much, like sometimes demand too much, like sometimes sing from the bottom of the bottom of their hearts, like sometimes entertain a demon or two.
Etta was famous for speaking her mind and singing her heart with that voice. That voice. The voice. A natural gift honed in the church and informed by life. I must admit that there’s something I can’t put my finger on about Etta and where she fits into the history of Black women born in America and singing for the world. I could talk about who she influenced as an artist and who influenced her. I could talk about how effortlessly she crossed genres. Could even talk about the particular way in which she flattened her notes at just the right moment to leave you in a puddle. But really that analysis doesn’t serve the singularity of singular artists. What I can say is that if you haven’t gone through an Etta phase this is as good a moment as any to sit yourself down and absorb her. Really absorb her. The listening is yours to do: the likes of her don’t come around these parts very often. There are the iconic songs that we all know like “At Last,” “All I Could Do Was Cry,” and “I’d Rather Go Blind” but her catalogue demands a deeper exploration. There are those private corners in songs that aren’t well known that will leave you face to face with someone who was not afraid. Fearlessness in song. Fearlessness in life. It is so rare. And it is so beautiful. Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles on January 25, 1938. There was a crescent moon that night. Seems appropriate. Both hidden and revealed. A flagrant act of beauty.
“Trust in me in all you do. Have the faith I have in you.” – Trust In Me”, Etta James