Etta James
*When the editor (Carolyn Baker) of Jam Source Magazine asked me to write an article on the late great legendary singer extraordinaire Etta James in celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month, I was hard-pressed to come up with something new about the artist that has not already been said…then bingo! I went to a book signing and got the angle that I needed.

She was born Jamesetta Hawkins. By age five she was known as a gospel prodigy; at the time of her death she’d mastered R&B, jazz, blues, and rock. As she began her professional singing career the name Jamesetta was inverted to Etta James. One of her early hits that soared to number two on the R&B charts – “All I Could Do Was Cry” – was co-written by Motown founder Berry Gordy before there was Motown. Chess Records producer Ralph Bass remembered about the recording session:

“One take and Etta was crying her eyes out for real. The band wanted her to do it over. I told them ‘Forget it’…how much more soul could I get from a singer?”

Etta James had a lot to cry about. Raised by a series of foster parents – the good and the bad – she referred to her biological sleep around mother as “the mystery lady.” She speculated that her father was the professional pool player Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone whom she met briefly for the first time at age 49. Her childhood struggles set the stage for a life of alcohol and drug abuse. There was a quality about James’ voice that made you cry. To this day I can hardly listen to “I’d Rather Go Blind” without welling up as singer/actress Beyonce did in her portrayal of James in the movie “Cadillac Records.” I can only wonder if there was some irony in James’ hit “Don’t Cry Baby” to remind her to get through the song without crying.

Etta James and Beyonce

Etta James and Beyonce

Now back to the book signing, it was music critic Nelson George promoting his new book about the TV dance show, Soul Train. His guest was an original Soul Train dancer, Marco De Santiago who recalled when Etta James appeared on the show along with The O’Jays (1978 season eight, episode one): “She was singing a song and became really emotional, and so she had to sing the song probably three or four times…and Don Cornelius asked her to sing that song again…this time just don’t cry. Etta James had to tell him that this song was just so personal. I didn’t know all the things Etta James had been through at that time [continued drug use, etc] and for Don to not show compassion. Some artists were given the privilege to sing live, and some artists lip-synced [over a track]. Etta James actually sang the song, and each time she sang it, it ripped her to shreds. Don would let her get her composure…he was a little irritated…I had never witnessed anybody cry in a song.”

That song, “Sugar On The Floor” was included in James’ album “Burnin’ Down The House” which was recorded live at Hollywood’s House of Blues in 2001. One critic said at the time: “Her big full voice had lost none of its richness” from her first recording in 1954 at age 16. James gave her all in a song.

She was quoted: “My mother always told me, even if a song has been done a thousand times, you can still bring something of your own to it. I’d like to think I did that.”

Following is the video to the song “Sugar On The Floor” and the lyrics:

You’re a stranger to me /Still you give me your life/ I toss it to one side/ Still you’re sweeter to me /When will I be sure

It’s warm where you are/ But my lips just don’t burn/ I feel so insecure/ When you try to be kind

Could I, could I ask for more?/ Feel like sugar on the floor

Sugar on the floor Sugar on the floor

Looking at you now/ I know you only want to find me/ Still I need a reason to leave the past behind me

There is no easy way/There is no easy way /To learn how to fly

I hope that I could care

When I turn around you’re there/ Should I, should I ask for more? /I feel like sugar on the floor/ I feel like sugar on the floor/ Sugar on the floor /Oh, oh, ooh Ooh, It’s warm where you are /But ooh I wish we could be closer/ ‘Cause I’m living in a dream/ And I can’t show you /Still you’re sweeter to me/ When would I, when would I be sure?/I feel like I’m sugar on the floor/ Feel like sugar on the floor All I need, /All I need is somebody to love /All I need, All I need is somebody to care about me/ So I won’t be wasted/ Oh, wasted on the floor /Oh I, oh I I feel like I’m sugar on the floor

Re-printed by permission. Here’s the original Jam Source article: