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Godspeed and God Bless, Etta James

To say that Etta James was an icon is an understatement. Having grown up with an Etta James superfan as was my mother SWIE ("She Who Is Exalted"), I think of Etta James as the soundtrack to my mother's life.

My mother's young womanhood was cut short at the age of 19 with her marriage to my dad and the birth of my oldest sister shortly thereafter. Her dancing and drinking days were mostly confined to the walls of her household after she married. And a lot of that dancing happened to the music of Etta James.

If Sam Cooke, Luther Vandross, and Teddy Pendergrass were my mother's top musical boyfriends, Etta James, Dinah Washington, and Aretha Franklin were her musical best girlfriends. I grew up watching my mom bop and stroll to "Tell Mama," and take long drags of her cigarette and hang her head to "All I Could Do Was Cry," as if what happened in that song was happening to her. I sometimes wondered whether my mother had actually loved someone else instead of my dad just by the way she responded to that song. At the height of her career, Etta sang like she was going through some things, and she was - drug addiction. My mother was going through some things, too, at the same time -- too many kids and too many miscarriages in too little time (six kids, three miscarriages, ten years), not enough money to feed all her kids all the time, and an abusive husband. It was like they commiserated as fellow love martyrs even though they didn't know each other. Etta sang the way my mother felt, and my mother felt what Etta was singing. I'm sure that if they'd known each other, they would have gotten along famously and swapped life stories, with their "tell it like it is" personalities.

As a child, I dismissed Etta James' music as "old folks' music." As an adult, I re-discovered her, along with Dinah Washington, and realized that many of the singers I liked copied much from them. What I loved most about Etta was she was living proof that a deep-throated raspy alto could deliver a song with haunting emotion, beauty and femininity with the best of them, because she was among the best of them.

Godspeed and God bless you, Etta, for seeing my mom through some tough times with your music.


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