Monday, January 23, 2012

REMEMBERING ETTA JAMES ‘AT LAST’


RIVERSIDE’S LEGENDARY SINGER DIES AT 73
Temecula, CA – Last Friday while I was in Santa Ana at the latest Occupy protest (see The System Isn’t Broken, It’s Fixed), legendary singer Etta James ‘left the building’ in the Riverside hospital where she was a patient. I knew her health was declining but I was touched, like many, to learn she passed. Though her ‘lonely days are over and (her) life is like a song’, her signature hit, At Last, was the start of my love affair with music. I thought I would relate the tie-in out of respect for a great singer I had the pleasure of seeing live in a dusty bar around the corner from where I once lived.
Several months before I would shake hands with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Chestnut Street YMCA, my mother decided that I needed to be more socially well adjusted. It was the tenth grade and the first year of high school. I had entered that teen period where I had started to adopt better personal hygiene in appearance, i.e., cutting my hair and not wearing wrinkled clothes to school. I had moved past the ‘notice me because I’m not a middle class label’ stage of early teenhood. My mother’s idea was for me to have a winter house party and invite some classmates. A date was picked out in early December, 1960.
Trust me when I say that the ‘me’ you read about now is not the ‘me’ I was at the start of the tenth grade. I was shy outside of my family/cousins and proper around my circle of classmates, some of whom doubled as church/Sunday schoolmates. Also remember that as an individual, I was living in the segregated Jim Crow era, ‘colored’ part of an old cultured and curiously aristocratic Southern riverfront city, so the party’s attendance wouldn’t be drawn from my actual homeroom class. A sub-culture within a sub-culture within a subculture within a sub-culture but I was about to find a proper note.
At first I resisted throwing a party [too much trouble] but my mother and her sister** started planning for the party like it was their shindig. It would happen in our living room which had plenty of space once the piano was gone. When I was offered a chance to go to the record store [Vine’s] and pick out 5 brand new 45 [7”] records to bolster my fledging collection, I was on the trolley. My mother then selected about ten to fifteen party goers that she thought were the proper sort, meaning none of my neighborhood posse made the cut. That was awkward but it was my mother’s way of getting me past my comfort zone.
Going to the record store, I had some possible choices from several friends and some picks that I had heard on my own. In the end, I remember asking the clerk for the latest sounds. I sampled my picks and a choice she suggested. my party selections were Shop Around/Who’s loving You (The Miracles), Bye Bye Baby (Mary Wells), Gonzo (James Booker), This Magic Moment (The Drifters), and At Last. When the party ended, all the attendees thanked me for a good time, but when Paul Gooch and Ronald Logan said they enjoyed my selection of music, that was ‘praise from Caesar’ to me because I knew they knew their music. They were both party dancers.
I would see that in the scene I was now part of, songs would come and go, but a few would become ‘classics’ for my high school days [and beyond]. Of the five singles listed above, Who’s Loving You, Bye Bye Baby, and At Last went the distance of my high school days. Who’s Loving You and At Last went beyond because Etta James version of the 1941 Gordon/Warren song is unquestionably the best rendition.
Coming in at almost three minutes, the song was longer than most 45/7” records of the day, but the orchestration set it apart from other black artist recordings. Though the arrangement could have been done for Patti Page, Etta James’ 22 year old voice at once commands and soothes the instrumental background that accompanies her in a mature and experienced manner. By the age of 22 Etta James was a seasoned performer. As I remarked to a peep recently, when this music was new, we had no idea that we were listening to artists that would remain timeless and new for generations to come.
As the high school parties went by, I noticed that whenever At Last was played, people would get up to slow dance, especially senior year when the song had gathered a sense of nostalgia to it. After all, by then the song was 3 years old and my class of ’63 had probably danced to it a hundred times. At Last was the perfect bookend to our senior year, very bittersweet to dance to at prom. Then my life went on and I forgot my role as a new tune impresario of sorts. I became an adult, got married; then later got divorced. It was ten years later.
I had moved back home. I was a kid again living at home but now the old neighborhood looked old. All the kids I knew had all scattered away. It seemed only night shadows remained, even in the daytime. The Desoto dealership on Broadway was long gone and now there was a seedy looking club inside part of it. Walking the neighborhood I noticed that the club offered live shows. In those days of my life, going to a club show meant having a date and dating. Being freshly separated, I wasn’t motivated to do either but when I saw the marquee announce ETTA JAMES LIVE, I bought a ticket.
The club was dingy and dark, filled with small round cafe tables, and the drinks were slightly watered, but when the spotlight went on, Etta James filled it. Wrapping up a nine song set with At Last, I walked up to her and said, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m seeing you in a dump like this. This is great! I, my classmates [of 63] have danced to so many of your hits, thank you.” Etta James was almost 32 when I saw her live.
Time marches on. I’m living in So Cali, BtS*. I’ve watched one of my oldest young friends meet and greet his wife-to-be, go through the drama spin cycle, maintain the relationship, and get married to become couple role models for their peers despite the ‘Jerry Springer’ aspects. The day of their wedding was as magical as their journey to the altar was spectacular [to this old romantic]. However the day crested when the bride’s dance started with a string introduction that I had not heard in 30 years; the opening bars to At Last. Time became suspended.
Later when I talked to groom Richard about the song and the moment, he said, “Dude, she lives in Riverside.”
After that I followed stories about Etta James in the Press-Enterprise. You get used to living in the reality that the ‘stars’ to others are just down the street from us here in So Cali. I never got to see Etta James live again.
But to be truthful, when I sit around and spin my stories of past music concerts, I don’t revel in the glory of seeing someone live that my peeps will have to see in the next life, though I am glad to be able to relate the experience. What really brightens my day is when a member of my ‘new’ family sees one of my memories live. For Ivan of The Vault Concerts, he has seen two, James Brown and Etta James. I’m glad to pass the legacy on.
This story is dedicated to an under-appreciated talent who left more than an immortal song; it was the artist who made the song unique. Here are a couple of song tie-ins to whet your curiosity about her bio/discology.
·       The Etta James version is in the 1998 film Pleasantville, appearing in the score behind the decisive scene when the pink 1950s-era Buick convertible carries the newly enlightened kids down to the park by the lake in a gentle shower of pink blossoms. (If you have never before witnessed true ‘Hollywood’ camera magic, this is a scene to behold even without seeing the movie-Ed)
·       It was also used in American Pie in one of the early scenes of the film where lovestruck Jim approaches foreign exchange student Nadia at a party.
·       A brief clip of the song (Etta James) is heard on ‘Strong Arms of the Ma’ [The Simpsons], when Marge rips the jukebox out of the wall at Moe's Tavern.
·       The song was used in FOX's post-game coverage of Game 4 of the 2004 World Series when the Boston Red Sox ended an 86-year championship drought.
·       The Etta James version of the song was featured in an almost silent episode of Two Guys and a Girl [ABC sitcom, March 10, 1998 – May 16, 2001].
·       It was used in the trailer for the 2008 film Wall-E (Etta James Version).
(*- Before the [music] Scene; ** - My aunt who lived with us)

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