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Song of the day – 138: Etta James

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Saw Cadillac Records, the ‘story’ of Chess Records, the other evening.

It was enjoyable enough. The guy playing Howlin’ Wolf was absolute killer, Jeffrey Wright was likeable enough as Muddy Waters (a sentence I never thought I’d type about that bruiser of a bluesman, Muddy Waters) and Len Chess had a huge proboscis. It was good entertainment, but one still couldn’t escape the feeling that here was a ‘made for TV’ movie that had somehow broken free of its confines and made it on to the Big Screen anyway. The treatment of the unsavoury characters involved was outrageously glossy, and one couldn’t help feeling there was more than enough of a fascinating story present not to have it all Changed so it was all Spelled Out In Big Capital Letters.

Doesn’t your heart tremble uncontrollably when it sees those dreaded words “based on a true story” at the start of a film? Doesn’t one know immediately that the connection to ‘real’ life will be tenuous at best, non-existent at worst. For example, the film portrayed Len Chess as dying from a heart attack as he drove away from Chess for the last time… and I don’t know that much, but I sure as hell know it wasn’t Len Chess’s hotel room that Etta James came to for her breakthrough audition. (It was supposed to be Johnny Otis.)

Ah well. Whatever. I have a couple of Chess Records compilations – the post-Muddy Waters stuff mainly, the soulful early 60s stuff preferably – that I return to, time and time again. It was nice to have some of the gaps in my knowledge filled in, however slapdash. And Beyoncé Knowles did give a creditable stab at playing the awesome Etta James but – much as I love yer Beyoncé (and I do) – she couldn’t come anywhere close to capturing her voice, throwing in far too many sugary frills to be able to approximate Etta’s raw soulful howl.

Clearly, Etta is the singer that Sharon Jones (of the Dap-Kings) – another performer I dig the most – references in her vocal style. Sharon is closer, but she still ain’t that close. To get super-close, one has to go back to just before Etta James, to the equally awesome Ruth Brown.

Here is Etta, in all her glory.

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