Notes From the Margins…

Etta James RIP

  • January 21, 2012
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In terms of its ability to stir the emotions, there is nothing like the singing voice, and  that power has never been dependent on technical proficiency.  There are a lot of singers with great voices who fail to evoke or generate any emotion at all.   Like Alexandra Burke singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.  Or Leona Lewis’ atrocious version of  Hurt, the Nine Inch Nails song that Johnny Cash so powerfully and triumphantly transformed into the anthem of his twilight years.

Cash took a song about pain and heroin addiction and transformed it into a sombre existential credo, drawing on an inner torment and darkness that cannot be reproduced on the X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent – and which would almost certainly be considered intrusive, alien and just too real if anyone tried.

It is almost impossible to watch Cash singing ‘ Everyone I know, goes away in the end’ in his aged, quavering voice on that last great video,  against a crescendo of piano  and acoustic guitars, without feeling touched in places that Simon Cowell – thankfully – can never reach.

Lewis’ bland and ridiculous version, on the other hand, has all the emotional depth and dramatic power that one might expect from Basil Brush reading Auden’s Funeral Blues.  But this stunningly inappropriate choice of cover maybe reflects a certain zeitgeist.   As capitalism stagnates and crumbles, as one country after another goes down the austerity plughole and the future often seems to turn grimmer by the day, pop culture continues to provide an inane backdrop our lives.

Today it is impossible to turn on the radio or go into a shopping centre without hearing some manufactured singer with a perfect voice emanating fake and pre-packaged emotion in soaring Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey-esque cadences.  Many of these songs are  accompanied by the usual videos of pretty airbrushed singers straining to make even their most banal pronouncements seem soulful and heartfelt, eyes closed and faces transfixed by a passion and emotion that that is often conspicously absent from their Cowellised bleatings.

The themes of most of these songs are pretty much the same as always: how I found you, how I need you, how I lost you, how I want you back again.  But with a few exceptions both the songs and the singers sound – and often look – like clones who have come fresh off a studio production line, and their frantic emoting often sounds hollow and emotionally numb.

But maybe that’s how we like it.  Maybe fake music is the most appropriate soundtrack for an era in which so much has been revealed to be fake.  Because these are sad and painful times for many people and as TS Elliot once pithily observed, humankind cannot bear very much reality.

One  singer who was not fake was Etta James, who died yesterday at the age of 73. When Etta sang, she really meant it.   Her voice was an amazing instrument.  She could be soulful, bluesy, gutsy, sexy and tender and she was able to transmit a level of raw emotion that is conspicuously absent from so many of today’s clones.

My all-time favourite James song is I’d Rather Go Blind, which she recorded in 1968.   Co-written by a friend of hers Ellington Jordan, who first sang it to her when she visited him in jail, it is just one of the most poignant and beautiful love songs ever recorded.

Many people have covered this song, including Rachel Crow – on the first US season of the X-Factor, no less.  Beyoncé did a creditable version for the film Cadillac Records, in which she put in a fine performance as James herself.  But nothing I have ever heard beats the original.  Even after listening to it countless times, I still feel that tingle in the spine when that shimmering opening guitar riff comes in and James sings out

Something told me it was over/When I saw you and her talkin’/Something deep down in my soul said, ‘Cry, girl’/When I saw you and that girl walkin’ around

Many people have felt these sentiments and many singers sung about them, but few singers have ever conveyed  sadness, longing and regret so powerfully as James did in that song.  Like Billie Holiday, she really meant it, and when she sang the blues she sang them from experience.  Abandoned by her father as a child, she was brought up by various carers because her mother was never at home, one of whom used to beat her in order to make her sing for his friends.  Even after signing for Chess Records and becoming famous, she had longterm problems with heroin addiction and a succession of bad relationships.

No one would wish such experiences on anyone, and they can’t be considered some kind of precondition for great art.  But in James’ case, they forged a singer with real heart and soul, whose emotions were genuinely felt rather than simulated for the benefit of the cameras or a place in the X Factor final.

In her later years she suffered from dementia and the leukemia that eventually killed her.   But I will always remember the proud, sad and beautiful woman who poured so much of her life into two minutes and thirty seconds of pure unadulterated emotion, which you can find right here:


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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