Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Persistence & Resistance - The District

From the District Weekly - (3/18/2009)

On inauguration day, as millions watched America’s official homecoming king and queen take to the dance floor for the Neighborhood Ball, a question occurred before numerous television sets: Why is Beyonce singing Etta James’ song? Surely if Aretha can slap on a bow and sing “My Country Tis of Thee,” then Etta James could sing “At Last” for the first couple. Instead, the Obamas got a movie tie-in featuring Hova’s wife in all her youthful glory. And probably the most important person wondering why Etta James was not on stage was Etta James. “I tell you that woman he had singing for him, singing my song,” she told a Seattle audience in late January, “she’s going to get her ass whipped.”

Jamesetta Hawkins was born in 1938 to 14-year-old Dorothy Hawkins. Her father, as she theorized in her brutally candid autobiography Rage to Survive, was master of the felt and cue, Minnesota Fats. Jamesetta was thrust into the world with an uncanny pair of pipes and the world stacked against her: By the age of 10 she had become a singing prodigy in her church before being whisked up to San Francisco for a life of petty crime that would dog her well into the Reagan administration.

Jamesetta became “Etta James” at the hands of musical potentate Johnny Otis. She penned her first hit, with Otis’ help, in 1955. “Roll With Me, Henry,” a ribald answer record to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me, Annie,” spent a month on the charts. From the very beginning, James’ speaker-rattling shout was full of venom and vigor.

In 1961, James sang the song that would accompany countless tuxedoed slow dances. “At Last” was recorded under the direction of Leonard Chess for Argo Records, a subsidiary of blues powerhouse Chess Records. It was one of a dozen standards that were to form James’ first full length album of the same name. In just under three minutes, with a metronomic piano plinking amongst swooning strings, James poured out a swell of contentment. Her weariness, all fluttering eyelashes and clenched fists, was a far cry from the street-hustling fireball that would go on to dominate her recording career.

As much as the song may belong to James now, it was written 20 years before she put it on tape. Penned by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for the musical Orchestra Wives, “At Last” was originally performed by Glenn Miller, where it hit the Billboard Top 20. Fifteen years later, Nat King Cole put his velvety fingerprint on the song. But it was James’ version that transcended the hit lists to become an enduring theme of romance that has become a staple to film music supervisors—an immediate signifier on par with “Stand By Me” or “Unchained Melody”.

So whose song is it? James has been singing “At Last” for nearly 50 years. Aside from Beyonce, Celine Dion, Norah Jones and Cyndi Lauper have tackled the song, and they all clearly aimed for the version by the notorious Miss Peaches. Hardly any have used Nat Cole’s example and fewer still Glenn Miller’s wah-wah rendition. Tavis Smiley, in conversation with James several years back, told her, “There are very few people who can take a song that’s already there and put their stamp on it in such a way that it becomes your song.” A little persistence and resistance has made it uniquely hers.

While James’ onstage rants have kept her in the news, her voice has kept her on the stage. She was recently awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and is a member of both the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “I’ve learned to live with my rage,” she says. “In some ways, it’s my rage that keeps me going. Without it, I would have been whipped long ago. With it, I got a lot more songs to sing.” Including the one that has paid her bills all these years.


Persistence and Resistance - The District

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