January 27, 2012

Utterly Etta

I thought I’d consider a few tunes from the HOTG perspective in remembrance of Etta James, one of soul music’s most expressive singers, who passed away last Friday at 73. She was preceded just a few days earlier by the great Johnny Otis, who had discovered her in San Francisco in 1954 and brought her down to Los Angeles to record for Modern Records, the first session resulting in a hit, “The Wallflower”.

Though not a New Orleans artist by any means; Etta did record there a couple of times, starting in 1956-57, when Modern brought her in to cut some sides at Cosimo Matassa’s original Rampart Street studio, J&M, ground zero for a multitude of classic records that decade, many hits, many misses. Two good singles resulted,, “Tough Lover”/”What Fools We Mortals Be” (#998) and “The Pick-Up”/” Market Place” (#1016), with Etta backed by members of the hot pool of local players who gave tracks cut as Cosimo’s their distinctive energy and sound; but nothing from those sessions fared well commercially - so she moved on...and on. By the time she returned to the city for an album project nearly a quarter century later, she was an acknowledged soul diva, albeit one who was having mid-life label problems. Much in the music business had changed. Yet, New Orleans still proved to be a great place to make a record..

Over the years, Etta put her distinctive stamp on number of songs by New Orleans and Louisiana writers, including Eddie Bo, Allen Toussaint, King Floyd, Bobby Charles, and David Egan. Almost exactly 5 years ago, I featured this cover of a rarely heard Toussaint tune; which has never been topped. It’s definitely time for a replay.

“Blinded By Love” (Allen Toussaint)
Etta James, from Etta Is Betta than Evvah, Chess 1976
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

That prior post considered three of the four known versions of “Blinded By Love”: Sam and Dave’s, produced by Steve Cropper in 1975 with a bunch of cool Stax alumni; Lydia Pense and Cold Blood’s funky bar band stab; and, of course, Etta’s, which I still attest to be the finest by far.

This unique, meticulously crafted Toussaint rock-pop hybrid can trip up the best of players with all its interlocking, tightly turned, precision-demanding riffs. On such material, the danger is losing the groove while negotiating the rapid-fire ins and outs to perfection. Undeterred by the challenge, producer/arranger Mike Terry decided to de-emphasize the riffs in favor of feel via finely tuned poly-rhythmic support that was on the money, in the pocket, but not in the way. That opened up the track and allowed Etta’s funky, expansive soul room to breathe. She certainly had her way with the enigmatic lyrics, making them matter purely by her intonation, phrasing and dynamics.

“Groove Me” (King Foyd)
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Speaking of covers, she utterly dominated King Floyd’s “Groove Me” on this same album, her inventive melodicism and raw power taking it places Floyd never dreamed of. Luckily for him, few people ever got to hear her kick his ass. Terry kept the basic song structure intact, including the vital staggered bass line that gives the tune its herk-jerky fever, but employed his larger instrumental palette to create a pulsing cluster of rhythmic interplay that provided uplifting, booty-shifting support for Etta’s high caloric, deep-fried bump and grind vocalizing.

I note that Larry Grogan also tapped this one as part of his fine Etta tribute from the past weekend at Funky 16 Corners; but I’ve wanted to post it for so long, I’m going with it anyway - the more the funkier. For an extra-treat, you can catch her doing the song live in 1982 on YouTube, with Toussaint and Dr. John sitting in, no less

An enjoyable ride, this poorly titled and cheaply packaged LP marked the end of Etta’s association with Chess Records and quickly slipped into undeserved obscurity due to a chain of corporate upheavals. She had first signed with the Chicago company in 1960 and recorded most of her classic sides for the Chess brothers’ various labels. Once they sold out to GRT in 1969, recording activity tapered off over the next few years, and the Chess physical assets were liquidated.

Around 1976, All Platinum Records bought the remains from GRT, mostly for the rich back-catalog of music, but ponied up to make Etta Is Betta Than Evvah, tracking most of it at their New Jersey studios. The result likely was the last new recording ever to bear the Chess imprint, as All Platinum soon found it more lucrative to simply reissue the label archives, as did Sugar Hill when they took over a few years later, followed by MCA, et al, keeping the Chess name alive through perpetual re-packaging.

Etta signed with Warner Brothers in 1978 and recorded her fine
Deep In The Night album in L.A. with Jerry Wexler producing, but it experienced the age-old music business curse of raves from the critics and indifference from the public. So, WB sent her down to Sea-Saint in New Orleans to work on a follow-up, aptly entitled Changes, with Toussaint in charge. He gave the proceedings variations on his usual mix of soul, pop and funk, with emphasis on the former and latter, considering who was singing, and got a number of impressive performances from Etta. I’ve featured several songs from this great album before, most recently as part of my series on the late Herman Ernest, III, who did a lot of the drumming on it; and the revealing back story of those sessions is there for the reading.

Changes LP took over a year to complete, because, in the midst of the process, Warner Brothers heard the rough cuts and decided to dump the album and Etta. Go figure. Put on indefinite hold, the project picked up again when RCA showed interest in it, only to have them also back out on the deal. Finally, after many months, MCA stepped in and funded completion the LP, releasing it on their T-Electric imprint; but it seems they then forgot it existed, as the record sank in the commercial shark tank pretty much without making a ripple.

“Changes” (Carole King [??])
Etta James, from Changes, T-Electric, 1980
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

I‘m so fascinated with this unusually structured, deep soul title track, I had to ignore my own preference for the upbeat and include it. Toussaint’s artful arranging and production ingenuity were well-expressed here in the slow, swing/sway of the beat, set in a floating 6/8 time with certain rythmic liberties taken at points for contrast and added kick. The studio band rendered it all flawlessly; and the leader's churchy piano vamping set the tone and provided the platform for the authentic, soulful authority of Etta’s delivery. That she was the realest of deals is undeniable on this tune, where her always mind-blowing vocal power is under such effortless control and perfectly attuned to the track.

There’s one mysterious caveat to this number. Regardless of what the back cover and label credits say, it appears not to have been written by Carole King at all. Neither the lyrics nor the melody match the song of the same name on King's 1978
Welcome Home album - the only song with that title she wrote, by the way. I have been unable to find a correct or even plausible attribution* for Etta's “Changes”, but feel there must have been a mix-up in the performing rights/song licensing department at the company, and would appreciate any leads you can lend as to who the writer(s) might be.

For a nice summary of Etta’s career, be sure to hop over to The B-Side and read what Red has to say about this all too human, yet larger than life singer’s singer, whose voice that had no compare or competition, belonging in a timeless class unto itself. Utterly irreplaceable.

*Note: Toussaint’s BMI catalog of songs includes one with the same title, and shows three co-wrtiers, who turn out to have written it in the 1990s, when it appeared on the Clockers soundtrack. Including Toussaint on the credits is either a BMI mistake, or may have something to do with the subtitle of that song being “Get Out of My Life Woman”. The US Copyright Ofiice does not show “Changes” as a registered Toussaint composition.


Anonymous Colby said...

Didn't realize Etta recorded a record in NOLA! "Night People" is on that record too!

9:04 PM, February 03, 2012  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

"utterly Irreplaceable" - Amen.

3:45 PM, February 04, 2012  

Post a Comment

<< Home