Good Times Or Bad, Etta James Kept Love Going

Singer Etta James died Friday. She started belting out gospel in church as a little girl, made her first pop record as a teenager, became Chess Records' first female R&B star and released her last album just a few months ago. Writer Gwendolyn Thompkins grew up listening to James and has this remembrance.

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Etta James died yesterday. She started singing gospel in church as a little girl, made her first pop record as a teenager, became Chess Records' first female R and B star, and released her last album just a few months ago. Writer Gwendolyn Thompkins has this remembrance.

GWENDOLYN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: Etta James and I never met, but we go way back - back to all those 45 records I played until the grooves wore out, back to cassette tapes that melted in the car in the summertime. When I was 10 years old and my sister told me how babies are made...


ETTA JAMES: (Singing) I just wanna make love to you, love to you...

THOMPKINS: Etta filled in the rest - about the longing and the lust, about knowing a man all the way up and all the way down, and loving him so hard that this time the bed might break.


JAMES: (Singing) All I wanna do, all I wanna do is cook your bread, just to make sure you're well fed. I don't want you sad and blue, and I just wanna make love to you...

THOMPKINS: But for all of the hot-buttered thumping and screaming that Etta sang about, the preying-mantis-wombat-nature-channel kind of love, she was right there with you when it all turned rotten, like a carton of milk past the due date. She serenaded you when you were weeping under the bed, when you were nothing more than love's debris.


JAMES: (Singing) I would rather, I would rather go blind, boy, than to see you walk away from me, child. So, you see I love you so much that I don't want to watch you leave me, baby. Most of all, I just don't, I just don't want to be free, no.

THOMPKINS: Yep, Etta James knew about blues that were so heavy you had to lift them with your legs. You think your situation is bad? What about watching the love of your life marry somebody else? Some other woman is carrying your bouquet, smiling up at your man, wearing your ring?


JAMES: (Singing) All, all I could do, all I could do all was cry. All I could do was cry. I was losing the man that I loved and all I could do was cry.

THOMPKINS: And yet only a natural-born fool would think that Etta James wasn't making her own kind of trouble.


JAMES: (Singing) Seems like to me I can hear my conscience say, Etta, you ought be ashamed of yourself. You know you got a good man and you ought to treat him right. I made a deal with my conscience, if my conscience didn't bother me, then I sure wouldn't bother my conscience.

THOMPKINS: Etta James had many of her own hits, but she could also make someone else's song sound like she sang it first. Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Howlin' Wolf, Randy Newman, Joe Tex. And I doubt that any of those guys on their best day would have made a fuss. Etta rolled like that. But it was the tender Etta James that most men and women invited to be with them when times were good. The "At Last," "Trust in Me" "My Dearest Darling" Etta.


JAMES: (Singing) I'm talking to all the lovers in the house tonight...

THOMPKINS: The best sweet dishes need a little salt and the best savory dishes need a little sugar, and that may be why there should always be a two-fisted helping of Etta James in everyone's love life. After all, that's how babies are born. Etta James keeps our species alive.


JAMES: (Singing) But I ain't never in my life before seen so many love affairs go wrong as I do today. I want you to stop, find out what's wrong. Get it right, or leave love alone....

SIMON: Etta James died yesterday at the age of 73. Gwendolyn Thompkins is a writer in New Orleans. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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