etta james


By the time she was a teen-ager, James was reunited, if that is the word, with her mother, who took her to San Francisco, where James’s love of R.&B. saved her, to some extent—but is talent enough if one has been continually unloved by those unreliable specimens, other people? That was what her big sound was about—a deafening cry in the wilderness of her unconquerable loneliness. She was fat: with drugs, food, incredible technical skill. But nothing could fill her up. All she could do was try to expel—shake off—some of the evening’s exertions (looking for dope on a more or less daily basis amounts to a job in itself) in the recording studio, where she sang a kind of speeded up blues, which I do not associate with R.&B. so much as it being just James’s singing, a variation of a sound I’ve heard all my life: black mothers calling down from various tenement windows for their children to come on in and eat their supper, or take some kind of nourishment, emotional and otherwise. I didn’t realize the extent of James’s gifts as a singularly butch performer until I saw an old YouTube clip of her singing “Precious Lord,” with Chaka Khan and Gladys Knight—a trio so powerful one would be frightened for one’s soul if they weren’t speaking directly about the soul. In it, James lead the choir with a rumble that supported Khan and Knight (particularly Khan) as they rose up to even greater heights of understanding vis-à-vis their respective gifts. As they did so, James stood back, nodding knowingly, a quintessential American artist in that she knew something about loneliness, and, from time to time, what to do with it.

more from Hilton Als at The New Yorker here.