Like a playground bully, Etta James' voice will knock you down and steal your lunch money. But this time you'll like it. When James pleads for you to "Tell Mama all about it," you'll do it. When she asks anyone who'll listen to "Stop the Wedding," you'll scramble toward the altar as fast as you can. That voice, man, it's powerful. And big, too. It'll make you sit up and listen. Maybe that's what music-reviewer types mean by a "commanding performance." Whatever you call it, she has it, and she's not afraid to use it.
You'd be tempted to think that, at 67 and not in the best health, Etta James would be slipping, that her live shows would be little more than a living legend trotting out the hits for an audience just happy to be in the same room with her. But you'd be wrong. Way wrong. Just last summer, James released Blues to the Bone, a collection of blues covers that adds a woman's touch to songs traditionally performed by male singers--with liner notes written by no less than Martin Scorsese, executive producer of the PBS series The Blues. And if she can sing like a man, she can certainly perform like one. Onstage, James may move a little more slowly, sit down a little more often, but her shows are surprisingly physical, sexual even. When you sing about love and lovin' like she does, it must be difficult not to work up a sweat.
At a performance last year at the Majestic Theatre, 40-ish white guys danced in the aisles, fans screamed out requests and there was an electricity in the room that seemed almost palpable. It was exciting and emotional, especially when James got teary-eyed during "At Last," a song she sang as a kind of tribute to mentor John Lewis. Lewis was at the show that night, and it was the first time she had seen him in decades. James is a tough lady, for sure, but she can be tender, too. Just ask the 20 billion brides who have played "At Last" at their weddings.
That this show was at the Majestic Theatre was fitting, because James did seem like R&B royalty. She was most definitely the queen of the stage that night. Blues, rock, jazz and soul flowed from her so freely, it was hard to tell which genre was which. The music became just that: music. There were no boundaries, no rules, just songs--beautiful and sad and raucous and painful. But that voice...
That voice was the real star. And it shone brighter than any spotlight or camera flash. It's what makes Etta James what she is. A singer of songs. A soul with soul. A bully you want to be friends with.