Every day some woman that has inspired me has herself a birthday. Today, Etta (1938-2012).
I saw Etta James perform a few years ago, on her last tour. She played a relatively intimate club, B.B.King’s, on 42nd Street, so we were all somewhat in her lap when she had herself wheeled out after the long, horn-heavy, glitzy introduction to her set. She reclined in a chair, by then too weak to spend much time on her feet, and intermittantly growled woman-of-the-world intros, delivered suggestive hand movements, and sent her voice soaring on songs that were more, or less, familiar. At Last, of course, now in a lower register, but Sugar on the Floor? The latter was fantastic.
Husky, sweet, sexy, with only a hard liver’s appreciation of the depths. (She demonstrated among other things that a heroin habit is not incompatible with longevity.) She came from grit — born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, California, on 25th January 1938, to an unmarried fourteen-year-old mother, Dorothy Hawkins – and it stayed with her even when she got famous. Everyone thinks of her as a chanteuse but she was also a rocker. I love her spirited take on Born to Be Wild. Not what you would expect of a lady of her vintage.
Etta James has always reminded me in spirit of another of my favorites, Sophie Tucker (1886–1966), known to a generation as the Last of the Red Hot Mamas. She earned her popularity in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
Sophie Tucker came from a somewhat less hard knocks school than Etta but still, her Jewish family emigrated from the Ukraine and opened a little restaurant, where she waited tables until she married at only 17. She built her career in burlesque and vaudeville, at first in blackface. And she hired black singers to teach her technique and write songs for her act. She had an incredibly strong musical persona.
Her hits included songs like Some of These Days and my personal favorite, Life Begins at Forty.
I’ve often heard it said and sung
That life is sweetest when you’re young
And kids, sixteen to twenty-one
Think they’re having all the fun
I disagree, I say it isn’t so
And I’m one gal who ought to know
I started young and I’m still going strong
But I’ve learned as I’ve gone along…….
That life begins at forty
That’s when love and living start to become a gentle art
A woman who’s been careful finds that’s when she’s in her prime
And a good man when he’s forty knows just how to take his time
Best returns of the day, Etta, and I hope that someplace, somewhere, you’re sharing the bill with Sophie.