Originally posted Oct. 18, 2011 9:59 PM EST
Please note: I've had some requests to re-post this due to Etta's passing.
A few years back we (Etta James and the Roots om Band) were doing a show at the Hollywood Bowl with Lou Rawls. (The late, great Mr. Rawls was by any account a great singer and a tremendous artist) We were backstage and Lou had asked Etta if she would refrain from doing 'At Last' on her set and maybe sit in with him (He was closing) on his take of it. He explained it was the title track of his new recording and he would really appreciate it because of it being his new release, record company pressures, etc. Now, I'm not saying this because I've played with her for 20 plus years but Etta owns the definitive version of At Last. (And while she did not write it, without doubt, it is simply her version that defines the song to millions of people.)
She sweetly smiled and said, "No problem Lou, I understand."
Mr. Rawls thanked her saying something to the effect 'I knew you would understand...' and left.
At that point Etta called over our musical director, Josh Sklair and some of the band members and said, "We're gonna open with 'At Last' guys, who the hell does that @#$%&$! think he is?" She absolutely tore it up, there was no way anyone could have followed her with that tune. We loved it and so did the crowd.
My tenure with Etta was 22 years and some change. I played guitar with her until her health no longer made it possible for her to perform. She afforded me many wonderful opportunities and now she has been diagnosed with leukemia and Alzheimers. Its been tough and I would be less than honest when one of her sons calls - I hope that it's not the dreaded call that I never want to hear. Her oldest son, Donto was my best man when my wife and I were married and her younger son, Sametto (She has two) is like a little brother to me. Both played in her band and also produced several of her recordings, two them were Grammy winners. They also played in my band and sometimes we would open for her.
Etta had the greatest stories - they reminded me of the hipster version of Forrest Gump - she was there for a lot of cool stuff and it's real. Like when she recalled Malcolm X and then Cassius Clay meeting up right before he became Muhammad Ali. Or talking to Miles Davis about Albert Collins. She said BB King's classic "Sweet Sixteen" was written about her, as they certainly were an item many years ago. BB always loved her and when I told him the story, he simply smiled, neither confirming or denying but definitely proud of what I told her. And he seemed a little choked up. I also loved her story about a young, not yet famous Janis Joplin nervously approaching her and telling her she was a singer and Etta was a hero of hers. And how Etta told Janis that she was going to be successful.
She also helped get me into treatment when my life was spiraling out of control. Some of her people recommended that she fire me because well, I was the band's Keith Richards. But she believed in me and kept me on. I also recall how kind she was to my mother when she came to a show. There's many more stories but I'll part with saying I'll always be grateful that she was looking for a blues guitarist back in the eighties and that person was me. I love you Etta and I always will.
I'll always cherish my time with you Etta, I can't thank you enough. And thank you to all the wonderful people here.
Sat Jan 21, 2012 at 7:33 PM PT: Republished by request.