Divas Got the Blues (Another Colette Submission)

25 Jul

UPDATE: This just in….Etta James hospitalized.

To preface this great post by Colette, I want to bring attention to the Blues Diva documentary that was recently featured on PBS. Morgan Freeman is the host from his Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Catch it if you can. Superb.


While Colette touches upon Irma Thomas in her post, this post would be remiss if the rest of these ladies weren’t mentioned. Among others, the documentary features Mavis Staples, Bettye LaVette, Odetta and one of my personal favorites, Deborah Coleman.

Deborah Coleman


Bettye LaVette

The incomparable Mavis Staples with a personal favorite, Respect Yourself

So many great Blues Divas. Thanks, Colette, for your submission.

Posting an Etta James video on this site recently reminded me of the rich and ongoing legacy of women blues shouters. Yes shouters, Mr. Simon Cowell. As far as the blues goes, shoutin’ ain’t no bad thing, baby. There are many ways to sing the blues. But Etta “Peaches” James and her kind are the ones with the mile-wide voices that can thunder and growl, squeeze very drop of pathos from a lyric, and let you know that wild women do get the blues. The greatest of these belters all influence one another, and the tradition lives on. Sorry I couldn’t find good clips for some other favorites — Ma Rainey, Tracy Nelson, etc. And sorry, I’m just not a Joss Stone fan (maybe someday). But if there’s something else in this particular vein you’d like to share, I’d sure love to hear it.

Let’s start with Etta. People in the know say she can be mean as a rattlesnake, and twice as much trouble when in a nasty mood. But one cuts some slack to a force of nature — and that, Peaches has been since the great bluesman and scout Johnny Otis “discovered” her back in the 1950s. She cut her signature tune “At Last” in 1961, on the Chess label, and since then has endured some extremely rough personal passages, including a long (and thankfully, a successful) battle with heroin addiction.

Now close to 70, she’s enjoying a career renaissance since having weight reduction surgery reduced her life-threatening bulk, and since great Peaches tunes like “The Blues is My Business” have been featured in movies and popular TV series like “The Sopranos.”

This whole set could be devoted to Etta, but here’s just a couple of my favorite Peaches numbers on video:

Jimmy Reed’s “You Got Me Running”Etta James and The Bluesbreakers

“I’d Rather Go Blind”Etta James with Dr. John

Music Maven NOTE: I’d Rather Go Blind was originally recorded in Muscle Shoals, AL at FAME Studios.

Shemekia Copeland is a young blueswoman really worth a big listen. A wunderkind who began her career in her teens, she just gets better in her 20’s. The daughter of Johnny Clyde Copeland, the late Texas blues guitar great, Shemekia has a little trouble getting her powerhouse voice heard in an era when her kinda music isn’t anywhere near the Top 40. So please, please check her out on tour and take a listen to her CD’s — she is hot as a pistol. Here she is with her peerless mentor B.B. King on Letterman, and doing live a number from one of her recent albums:

“Everyday I Have the Blues” Shemekia Copeland and B.B. King

“Who Stole My Radio?”Shemekia Copeland

Music Maven NOTE #2: Shemekia Copeland performed on stage with one Taylor Hicks at Buddy Guy’s in Chicago, earlier this Spring.

There are “foremothers” galore from the 1950s in the blues shouter field, but probably none as potent as Big Mama Thornton, a killer harmonica player as well as a singer who can make your spine tingle and hair stand on end. It was Big Mama who originally recorded “Hound Dog” (pre-Elvis) and “Ball and Chain” (pre-Janis). Thanks to the popularity of the latter tune when Janis Joplin recorded it, her career resurged in the 1970s (she died in 1984) and she was thrilled to be embraced by young blues “mavens.”

“Rock Me”Big Mama Thornton

“Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton with the wonderful Buddy Guy

A little smoother around the edges, the late Ruth Brown (who died recently) was a shouter par excellence. This is was a huge hit for (and a great sisterhood anthem), and later in life she too had a resurgence — in the hit musical “Black and Blue” on Broadway, in clubs, even on film. What a sizzler:

“Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean”Ruth Brown, live at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre

How can you play Big Mama in this set, but ignore Janis? No way. I was lucky to hear both artists live, and they both sang this soul-rattling woman’s blues (which Big Mama wrote). What can you say about Janis that hasn’t already been said? We’ll not see the likes of her again. Here is a performance in Germany that’s one of her best on video, followed by a cut of her singing one of Etta’s big smashes, “Tell Mama.”

  “Ball and Chain”Janis Joplin

“Tell Mama”Janis Joplin

We’ve been spending a lot of time with Texas gals, so let’s move on to New Orleans, and two great, still active blues shouters there: Irma Thomas, in a short clip singing “Time is On My Side” with none other than New Orleans pianist-composer extraordinaire Allan Toussaint on piano:

And Marva Wright, who didn’t start singing professionally until her 40’s but is making up for lost time herself:

“Heartbreakin’ Woman” — Marva Wright

Finally, we have to pay homage to whom it is always and forever due: Bessie Smith. Along with Ma Rainey and a few others, she invented a kind of gutsy, full-throttle blues singing that has been a touchstone for everyone to follow. This is the only film I know of Bessie singing, from the film “St. Louis Blues.” It’s long, but stick with it. She’s mesmerizing:

St. Louis BluesBessie Smith


Posted by on July 25, 2007 in Artists, blues, Etta James, Influences


20 responses to “Divas Got the Blues (Another Colette Submission)

  1. shrewspeaks

    July 25, 2007 at 9:36 pm

    These are the ladies I love…and one slight step to the right and Aretha is right there too.

    I must share one more lady Miss Koko Taylor

  2. morewines

    July 25, 2007 at 9:49 pm

    Love the Blues.
    I will see Etta James Sept 8. She will be
    with B.B. King and Al Green. Can’t wait.

  3. music maven

    July 25, 2007 at 10:07 pm

    Shrew — thanks for the KoKo….definitely a part of the Blues Divas.

    morewines, now THAT is a ticket. I expect a full report.

  4. morewines

    July 25, 2007 at 10:10 pm


    You will get a full report.

  5. morewines

    July 26, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    Hopefully we will be able to see Etta James
    Sept 8th. That’s questionable right now.

  6. shrewspeaks

    July 26, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    Etta, last year was amazing! All these women I would love to see. What is it about their sound…so true so different and Colette I would love to know why you didn’t include Young Tina in the mix?

  7. colette

    July 28, 2007 at 12:57 am

    Hi — just got back from vacation on a remote (and lovely) island to see this posted, and hear the bad news about Etta. Looks like she’s doing better:

    Ain’t it ironic, that the gastric bypass surgery saved her life in one sense, and threatened it in another? There are often, I’ve read, some very serious complications with this kind of major stomach surgery — especially for someone Etta’s age. But she’s a tough cookie, and we just have to hope she’ll pull through.

    Morewines, what a bill! Al & Etta & BB? talk about ripping the roof off the joint. Hope it happens, and I think you owe us all a blow-by-blow.

    Thanks for the adds, MM. Especially Deborah Coleman, who I didn’t know. I’m hoping to do another contribution sometime soon on the history of Mavis Staples, a great great human being and singer (as is Odetta). I heard her do a Mahalia tribute a couple years ago, and it was tremendous.

    By Young Tina, do you mean…who? Tina Turner? Ah, that’s a subject for a musical epic…..Or do you mean someone else?

    Love that Shemekia and Taylor played Buddy Guy’s! Good company indeed.

    I’m wondering about reactions to Big Mama Thornton. Just recently rediscovered her, and she’s the motherlode. This is the real thing: rough, raw, unvarnished.

    And one Janis note: for some reason that Janis in Germany (Ball in Chain) link isn’t working for me — It’s a truly great performance, not just by Janis but by Sam Andrews (the original Big Brother guitarist, who came with her later to the Kozmic band) so here’s another:

  8. colette

    July 28, 2007 at 12:59 am

    And a question MM; can you buy that Blues Divas doc? My local PBS station passes by a lot of great music stuff, or plays at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday, and I never got wind of this. thanks for the tip!

  9. music maven

    July 28, 2007 at 8:19 am

    Fixed the Janis link…

    I can’t find the DVD for sale anywhere but here is the like to the Mississippi Public Broadcasting site. If you have DVR, you might want utilize that to record it.

  10. Jan

    July 28, 2007 at 6:05 pm

    MM: I’m still going through the videos but I was blown away by both Big Mama Thornton and Janis (Ball and Chain). Damn. It’s so rare to see a performance like that by anybody and getting it on tape is almost unbelievable.

    I hope you are getting better. Thanks for the music.

  11. reporter

    August 1, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    I have an MP3 from the night Taylor shared the stage with Shemekia if anyone would like it. I can upload it to sendspace.

  12. reporter

    August 1, 2007 at 2:04 pm

    Oh, and that was one fantastic night at Buddy Guy’s. When he was onstage with Shemekia, he just let her sing! You could tell he was impressed as hell.

  13. music maven

    August 1, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    Yes, reporter. Put up the link and I’ll put it on the blog….Good stuff!


  14. reporter

    August 1, 2007 at 7:51 pm

  15. colette

    August 2, 2007 at 10:21 am

    wow, thank you — can’t wait to hear it…..go, Shemekia!

  16. colette

    August 2, 2007 at 5:20 pm

    tried that file and it was empty, reporter. any instructions? thanks.

  17. reporter

    August 6, 2007 at 5:16 pm

    oops, sorry, never came back to this thread after I (thought) I uploaded it. I’ll go check on that.

  18. reporter

    August 6, 2007 at 5:30 pm

    Ok, I tested this link. Sorry. It isn’t the entire song and remember as you listen, Taylor is up on stage with her 😉

  19. colette

    August 8, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    Wow, just listened to the Shemekia sound clip Reporter sent in. Thanks so much — That’s the real deal, 100 proof blues. Highly recommend it to everyone!

  20. sondan

    November 22, 2008 at 10:45 pm

    It’s a year later but I am so glad I found this blog and in particular this post. Loaded with my faves and I had not seen Etta with an afro (LOL) I musta missed that hair phase!

    Thanks for the music and memories.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: