I woke up this morning to find that the great Etta James had moved on in her journey and become the late, great Etta James.
I’ve long been a fan of Ms. James in that I’ve appreciated her talent and enjoyed listening to her music but given that I only possess two of her CD’s I could hardly claim to be a “major” fan.
I am however a major fan of acknowledging true achievement and giving credit where credit is due. I’m also a fan of recognizing the tenacity of the human spirit and its ability to overcome obstacles as well as the ability of an artist to incorporate those trials and triumphs in a manner that neither panders for pity nor alienates with arrogance.
Many of the obits make mention that describing Ms. Jame's style as a vocalist, as a singer of songs, was not particularly easy. She was not only great at singing blues; she herself was the very essence of the genre. She also had an equal capacity to successfully express her talents in the genres of R&B, Jazz and Pop.
Ms. James hales from a time when hits were created, the hit being part and parcel of the song itself and the person that brought the song to life.
Ms. James no doubt like others of her generation latched on to a song and hit the road, singing wherever she was given an opportunity to sing, often under what were no doubt less than welcoming conditions, entering the back door of clubs that would have denied her entrance through the front, singing for an audience whose sense of camaraderie with the lady on the stage was made comfortable only by the invisible wall that kept them apart.
Yes, hits were created by the artist; unlike today where “hits” are often no more than a tally of right clicks of a mouse on a site such as Youtube.
Ms. James was a crossover artist in her day due to her ability to sing the music of many genres but I somehow don’t doubt that the color of her skin and the fact that she was of mixed race often prevented her from crossing over comfortably in many social situations, be they black or white.
Today Ms. James exotic beauty would be immediately recognized by the powers that be and she would not only be highly touted as a vocalist but a crew of agents, managers, publicists and “stylists” would mold and shape her into a commodity that would have Hollywood on its knees.
In her own time it would have been hard to cast a light skinned black woman in a movie whereas today she would be tagged to play the female lead and love interest of Denzel Washington, George Clooney or Antonio Banderas to name a few and not an eyebrow would be raised.
I’m sure that a movie of her life and career as long been in the works and her passing will propel such a venture forward with lightning speed. Every actress in Hollywood with a touch of tint to her skin will clamor for the role. Hell, were she thirty years younger I’ve no doubt that Meryl Streep herself could convince us that her own pallor was of questionable lineage.
We lost a great artist today, but just as importantly we lost one more American that was both a witness to and a survivor of the struggle for equal rights that has made great strides as it continues today.
Thank you for the music Etta James, rest in peace, may you be free, at last.