Some of you here know that I played guitar with Etta James for 22 years. I, like so many others, was saddened by her passing. I found out the news when I received a call from a reporter on Friday who asked for a few comments to add to a story. I had also spoken with Donto James, Etta's son, who had gently told me it was just a matter of time before she passed and to prepare myself for the inevitable. That's so like him, consoling others while doing his best to keep it all together. Donto played drums in the band and also co produced her recordings. Her youngest son, Sametto plays bass and also co-produced her recordings. We are close, Donto was my best man at our wedding and both of them also played in my band and often we would open for Etta. However, despite any mental preparation, I wasn't ready for that call. I was crushed. And numb. I will always love her and I cherish my time with my longtime boss, friend and mentor. She was a very special lady and family to me.
In May 2009, James performed her last show in Detroit, at the Motor City Casino's Sound Board. The opening act was her longtime sideman, Metro Detroit guitarist Bobby Murray.
James dubbed Murray, her guitarist for several decades, "Mr. Excitement" for his tendency to burn the candles at both ends (indeed, he says she helped steer him into rehab).
Murray said he last spoke to his old boss in December, when Donto held the phone up to his mother's ear in her hospital bed, so she could hear Murray's voice.
"Donto said, 'She really hears you, man,' she was squeezing his hand while I was talking," Murray said. "I feel numb, but I also feel that she's not far away."
"So sorry to hear about Etta," Aretha Franklin said. "Etta James was one of the great soul singers of our generation. An American original! I loved 'Pushover,' 'At Last' and almost any and everything she recorded!!! When Etta sung, you heard it!"
Etta loved Aretha, too.
And from Bonnie Raitt, also a good friend and someone Etta admired.
To me, Etta James stands as one of the greatest singers of all time… any genre, any era. The sheer power and depth of emotion, phrasing and nuance in her voice set her so far above the rest, and have since she first started out. Her perseverance, ferocity and vulnerability have been as inspirational to me as her monumental talent. I bow to you, my dear friend and soul Sister…now and for always. Love, Bonnie
Etta could effortlessly go from a rockin' tune to a jazzy ballad, straight up soul, a gut bucket blues or country. In that regard she was much like one of her musical heroes, Ray Charles. Which to me, (although I am primarily a blues guitarist and that's what she hired me for) was a treat and kept the band on it's toes. She handpicked us personally and looked for different attributes from us to contribute to her sound. Despite some personnel changes through the years, her Roots Band a wonderful ensemble to be a part of.
I'll never forget the phone call I got from her.
“I picked up the phone and it’s, ‘Hey man, this is Etta James. Are you available for some gigs?’ ” recalls the Japenese-born Murray, 55, who’s been a Ferndale resident since 1996, after meeting his wife at a Fox Theatre show. “I still haven’t gotten over that first phone call. It’s still as much of a kick today as it was the day I got it.”
I will always be grateful for my tenure with Etta and all the pearls that she shared
with us. It wasn't unusual to see someone like Mick Jagger or Keith Richards in the audience, groovin' to the show. BB King, Albert King and John Lee Hooker had crushes
on her and it was truly entertaining too see them act like schoolboys around her. I'm being flooded by so many memories of her right now. I cherish them all. Like the wonderful fragrance of flowers whenever she was around. Whether it was onstage or in a room it was undeniable and it wasn't from her perfume, it was from her. Another from The Oakland Press and The Macomb Daily.
This a performance from Montreux, I believe it was 1993. Josh Sklair and myself on guitars. Etta's version of the Steve Goodman tune, "A Lover is Forever."
Here's Etta's incredibly soulful take on The Association's"Never My Love" (This is several years prior to me being in her band.)
And here's a more recent recording.
To my fellow Kossacks, thank you for letting me go on. Etta, I will always love you and I will do my best to honor your memory. You live on in our hearts and memories.