Sunday, January 22, 2012

What She Overcame

LaVern Baker did it in 1959 (Atlantic), Dee Dee Sharp in 1962 (Cameo). In the '70s it became a widespread phenomenon. Involved were, most famously, Aretha Franklin (several LPs), but also Big Mama Thornton (Pentagram, 1971), Mitty Collier (several LPs, 1972 and after), Ike & Tina Turner (UAS, 1974), Faye Adams (Savoy, 1976) or Fontella Bass (Soulnote, 1980). In 1983, Etta James did it. As you will have guessed, I am speaking of female singers who had become famous in the r&b field and then turned to gospel. Some of them, like Mitty Collier and Fontella Bass, were converted for good after that and didn't return to secular music, others just moved on, like Tina Turner and Etta James.

Etta James did record her only gospel or »inspirational« album in 1983. Actually, it is a sad affair. The LP is entitled The Heart and Soul of Etta James, yet there is neither the heart nor the soul of Jamesetta in it. She sounds tired (not bored), and her voice is flat compared to previous years. I guess it is safe to say that she wasn't much into it. Truth is, she did it for the money, as she tells us in her autobiography:
»My career was in the toilet. ... People tried to help, but I was hell-bent on getting high. In 1980, I'd met a man named Lupe De Leon, a wonderful jazz-loving Mexican American, who was a probations officer. ... For a few years, Lupe did his best to find me work and acted as my manager. But I was hardly manageable. Especially as I got deeper into coke.
I remember when I was really low on bread - no gigs, no recording contract. I hadn't been paying my mortgage ... But Lupe was resourceful, and he mana- ged to locate a little label in Minnesota who paid me to sing gospel. I cut a record called The Heart and Soul of Etta James, and a TV station in Holland was prepared to fly me over to perform the songs live. Well, me and Lupe flew from L.A. to New York, where we had a two-hour stopover. I was fresh out of blow and not about to hit Europe without some stash. ... We scored, made it back to the airport, and snorted our way across the Atlantic. I was still a mess.« (Rage to Survive, p. 236*)
This is what Etta says in her splendid autobiography (which for its frankness and no-bullshit attitude is arguably among the best and most impressive books in its genre). And what she told about how her gospel album came about (and what the circumstances were) is reflected by what you hear on this LP. There is a version of Dylan's »Blowin' In The Wind«, where Etta sounds particularly tired, and a great number of commercial gospel tunes, mainly those much in vogue in modern gospop (»Oh Happy Day«, »Down By The Riverside« etc.), have Etta sounding worn out. On the production side, the album betrays little creative spirit, and Etta's voice is frequently drowned out by the choir. It remains a mystery to me why this album has been re-released on CD no less than five times during the last ten years, in one instance even split into 2 vols. Let's hope nobody discovers Etta James nowadays by one of these CDs because he'll likely not be impressed.

There is just about one song which, to my mind, shows Etta James approaching, if only remotely, her former (and later recovered) self. You can hear the tune below, »Walk All Over God's Heaven« (aka »I Got Shoes« or »I'm Gonna Shout All Over«, an old standard). But even though Etta is here not up to her natural talent as she could have been in better times, this song, as well as the entire LP, is an important document nevertheless: it does remind us that Etta's life was no walk through the land of milk and honey. Not unlike Esther Phillips, she often struggled along and was just making it, ravaged by 30 years of intermittent but incessant drug abuse and unfortunate personal choices. In the end, she overcome all difficulties and was even able, most remarkably, to reflect upon her life as self-critically and sincerely as she did in her autobiography. This made her quite an outstanding personality in the music business and a formidable human being ... of the don't-mess-with-me type, you know, those with the soft core.

Etta James: »Walk All Over God's Heaven« from the Arrival LP # NU 5600 (1983):

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* Etta James and David Ritz: Rage to Survive. The Etta James Story, New York 2003 (second edition; 1995 1st ed.)

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