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.
The incomparable Mavis Staples with a personal favorite,
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 Blues“ — Bessie Smith