Upon hearing the sad news of Etta James’ death earlier today, Steve Tennant sent along this recollection of seeing the legendary R&B singer perform live at the Ottawa Bluesfest back in 2006.

I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about seeing one of my long-time favourite female singers, Etta James, at Bluesfest. Before her show, I ran into Kingston’s own Georgette Fry who said she’d been singing Etta’s tunes for 30 years and was finally going to hear her in person. She was on cloud nine as she’d gotten there early and secured 7th row seating and couldn’t wait for the show to begin.

Now I hadn’t read anything lately about Ms. James prior to her arriving on stage so when the band started playing and announced her, I was, needless to say, confused when this trim ol’ gal of 68 minced out on stage. I say “trim” because the last time I’d seen her live — and again, more recently in a video of a concert several years ago — she was triple the size of the woman before me now. I learned later that she’d had gastric bypass surgery a while back resulting in the lost 200 lbs. of weight.

Let me tell ya, she’s still got it.

Early on she sang one of her own compositions, “I’d Rather Go Blind” with the same devotion I’d heard her sing it so many times before. She’s always been a suggestive performer and she still makes the most of double entendre tunes. ‘I Want To Ta Ta You Baby” and Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On” showed her strutting her stuff onstage in her own classy way.

She still has great range and control as she showed in her rendition of her most remembered hit “At Last”. Later, she reached way back with “My Dearest Darlin’”, “All I Could Do Was Cry” and “ Stop The Wedding” which brought many a tear to the infatuated crowd. Her control, from tender whispered passages to solid growls only confirmed we were in the presence of a master and proof positive she deserves her past induction into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the W. C. Handy Blues Foundation.

Speaking of professionalism. Etta James normally has two sons in her band, one on bass and one on drums. Well the drummer was unable to make it across the border due to his criminal past so, 6 hours before the show, Ottawa local drummer Ross Murray got the call to fill in with Etta that night. I caught up with Ross at Stewart Park Festival who gave me the following synopsis of his time with Etta.

When he was asked 6 hours earlier, he ran out and got several of her albums and started listening and practicing then headed off to the gig. About one hour before the show he met up with the band who crushed his new-found confidence with her music by being told: “She doesn’t do that stuff any more”. Not only that, but there is never a set list and Etta lets them know what she wants from the stage. Imagine Ross sitting in “cold turkey” with this tight band and still getting kudos’ thrown his way by Etta, including “He’s baaaaaaad” in her sultry style.

Thanks Etta James for a memorable evening.

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  1. Joseph 24 January, 2012 at 16:11

    She was amazing. Her performances here in Chicago were a thing of essential beauty. Rest in peace, Etta James.

  2. Laurie 26 January, 2012 at 16:50

    Just a picky point of correction — “I’d Rather Go Blind” (my own personal favourite of Etta James) was written by Ellington Jordan and co-credited to Billy Foster. It was first recorded by Etta James in 1968.

  3. Laurie 26 January, 2012 at 16:52

    Oh, I also meant to say that I was there in 2006 for the performance at Ottawa’s Bluesfest and it truly was a memorable show. Just much much much too short! 🙂

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