Goodbye, Etta James

Etta James
Etta James

On a cold, damp night in the early winter of 1960, an orchestra of 16 men, including a violin section, warmed up for a recording session in a small studio in Chicago, Illinois. They tuned up, and waited for the girl singer to show up…a young, pretty girl who had an R&B hit a few years before but hadn’t turned many heads since. The producer was a little worried that she might not even show up…she had a thing for heroin…but she walked in from the cold on time, and ready to sing.

She didn’t even need a warm-up; she’d already done that in the cab ride over to the studio, damn near breaking the glass in the side windows of the Checker.

She walked up to the mic, cool and professional, adjusted the hight, and smiled at the engineer. “At Last, Take One”, he said softly into his mic, and the bandleader raised his baton to start the orchestra playing a song that had been made a hit almost 20 years earlier by Glenn Miller’s big band, a ballad standard that had been played a million times in the original, ballad way. Until tonight.

The violins came in, and the girl singer closed her eyes as the intro soared. She took a quiet, deep breath, and on cue, she belted out the two words that would make her a star for the rest of her life:

“At Last”

That girl was Etta James, and no one had ever heard that big band ballad sung in such a soulful, lilting way before. With that one song she became one of the pioneers of the modern style of Rhythm and Blues, so much so that a half a century later the most popular singers of the time would do their best to imitate that style.

Today, January 20, 2012, Etta James left this plane for that big orchestra in the sky. She was 73, and considering the fate of many of her contemporaries, she lived a long and pretty damned good life.

Thanks for the music, Etta. You’ll always live on as one of the greats.

-Tiki Chris. (Note: Please don’t take this stylized post as fact. This is just the way I imagine that recording session may have gone. It’s true that “At Last!” was a tune that was originally recorded by Glenn Miller’s orchestra for the movie “”Orchestra Wives” in 1942, and became one of the band’s biggest hits. It’s true that no one ever sung it quite like Etta James, and that she pretty much set the style for vocalists like Beyonce and Mariah to copy. The rest is purely speculation. For more info on Etta James visit

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