One of the most overlooked albums of 2011--at least by year end reviews--was Lucinda Williams' "Blessed."
A road trip through the soul, "Blessed" features the evocative ballad "Kiss Like Your Kiss" which I hear in blues-jazz singer Etta James who died early Friday Jan. 20. (My full appreciation appears in the Chicago Sun-Times).
The snow is flying in Chicago today. They are cold tears.
And Williams sings:
There'll never be a winter quite so true
When the sky was painted with gifts
There'll never be a moon so full & blue
There'll never be a kiss like your kiss.....................
There's a lotta Etta in Lucinda, especially in the ballad as true as James' "At Last.".....
Listen to each song back to back.
You connect the shared blues phrasing, the wanting vocal curls and vulnerability that draws in the listener.
New York popmeister Harry Warren co-wrote "At Last." (He also co-wrote "That's Amore' and "Jeepers Creepers" with Johnny Mercer.) The song dates back to 1941 when vocalist Ray Eberele and bandleader Glenn Miller peformed it in the film "Sun Valley Serenade."
James recorded the ballad in October, 1960 at Chess Records with dreamy strings arranged and conducted by Chicago's Riley Hampton. The alto saxophonist from Fletcher Henderson's band had his own hit with the goofy "Hambone," recorded in 1952 for OKeh Records. During the same session James cut the ballad "A Sunday Kind of Love" and Harold Arlen's "Stormy Weather."
James' influence stretched from Chess in 1960 to Flo Rida, who Tweeted on Friday, "I'm deeply saddened by the passing of the great Etta James and I will be forever grateful for the gift she blessed me with." And Etta James I dedicate "Good Feeling" to you # RIP to a # Legend."
Pink Tweeted, "RIP to the late and great Etta James. Your voice and your fight inspired me and many. I love that through recordings, people can live forever."
Chicago gospel-soul icon Mavis Staples traveled a similar path to James in 1970 with her Stax solo LP "Only for the Lonely" that meshed the blues of "How Many Times" with pop ballads like "Since I Fell For You." The "Only for the Lonely" cover featured a close up photo of Staples with a tear running down her cheek.
Staples remembered sharing the stage with James at the 1989 Benson and Hedges Blues Festival at the Beacon Theater in New York. Along with cabaret singer Nell Carter and vocalist-pianist Katie Webster, they were part of an odd ball show called "Dynamic Blues Divas."
It was Staples first live appearance with a band after three decades with the Staple Singers.
"I told Etta, 'I don't know what I'm doing here, I don't sing the blues'," Staples told me. "Etta started cursing and saying 'You been singing the blues all your damn life.' The last show we did together was about 2005 at a festival in Lansing, Michigan. She had that (gastric bypass) surgery and she was smaller than me. I said, 'Etta, what are you trying to do girl?' She said, 'Mavis, it's about time I got skinny. I've been fat all my life.' We used the same makeup guy in California, Rudy Calvo (Chaka Khan, Queen Latifah). In fact, Rudy traveled with her before she got sick."
"Etta was so happy in Lansing," Staples said. "She was strutting across the stage. She got clean. She never mentioned anything about going to church. This time when I mentioned I was a gospel singer she cursed me out again. She told me, 'You've been a blues singer all your life!' Again, I had to agree with her. I didn't want her to go upside my head."
James and Staples shared a powerful contralto. You can hear James start from the bottom and work her way to the top in "At Last."
"It's hard for one singer to feel another singer, maybe because you've been critical," Staples explained. "I don't know. But if I feel somebody, that is extraordinary. Like this girl Adele. I feel her. When I first heard her, I went out and bought both her CDs. Tina Turner is another one. You are going to feel something.
"Etta James had it all. Just like she told me I was a blues singer. She was gospel, too."
Beyonce' Knowles channeled the scorched soul of James in taking on her hit "I'd Rather Go Blind" at the end of "Cadillac Records," the cinematic story of Chess Records. She also tackled "At Last," but not with as much panache' as James. The movie depicted a torrid relationship between Leonard Chess and James. In 2008 I screened the film with long time Chess staff producer and rhythm section director Gene Barge who said, "I don't recall Leonard having that kind of relationship with Etta James."
Leonard's son Marshall Chess, who still runs the family publishing company out of New York said that while the two were "very close," they were never involved sexually. "I asked Etta right to her face," Chess, now 69, told me. "She said, 'No, all the motherfucker did was kiss me on the cheek.' They had a close relationship and he felt protective of her.
"We had that with a lot of artists."
But the Chess family stood by James in the toughest times, although at times James thought she had been shortchanged with royalties.
According to Robert Pruter's excellent "Chicago Soul" (University of Illinois Press, 1992) James said of Leonard Chess, "He always looked after me, even though I was the company's black sheep, always getting into trouble. When I was a junkie he set me up with the rehabilitation center and made sure I was staying straight. I mean, there are a lot of companies who couldn't care less."
Leonard Chess died of a heart attack in 1969.
Barge told me, "On the day of Leonard's funeral ("At Last" producer) Ralph Bass and I flew out to the West Coast to record Etta. Leonard had paid for Etta's house in Los Angeles and kept the deed so she wouldn't lose it." Marshall Chess told me Chess bandleader Paul Gayton held the deed for his father.
James had 15 hit singles for Chess between 1960 and 1964.
Chess was blessed.