April 30, 2015. Posted by Felix Hernandez.
The new president and first lady dance as Beyonce sings. Meanwhile, I think about another singer - Etta James.
My third interview with Etta is long overdue, I think, as I watch the White House Inaugural Ball in 2009. Obama and Michelle's first dance will give us plenty to talk about. The tune Beyonce's singing is one that Etta long considered hers.
Our first interview took place in the 80s. Johnny Otis, the late capo of West Coast R&B, introduced the two of us while I was on a national tour interviewing R&B stars of previous generations.
In Los Angeles, Johnny hooked me up with some of R&B's early heavyweights. I spoke with Big Joe Turner, in what would be his last interview; Joe Liggins, whose "Honeydripper" was one of the biggest R&B hits of the 40s; Pee Wee Crayton; Richard Berry, who introduced the song "Louie Louie" to a world eager to cover it.
And Etta, or "Peaches," as Johnny liked to call her.
At the time, Etta was getting herself back on the map, taking advantage of the roots R&B revival.
Soon after our interview, she played a packed blues club in Manhattan, where she sang to an audience of young professionals as well as older people who had bought her 45s when they were on the charts.
The song that got the wildest ovation was "At Last," which she did as part of a medley that dated back to her early years at Chess Records.
By the time we met again in the mid-90s, Etta had released several acclaimed albums and co-written a book with biographer David Ritz.
I had moved my "Classic Soul" operation from Tribeca to a dilapidated Brooklyn brownstone, where I planned to build an interview studio.
The studio faced an enclosed garden. It was to be a place where my R&B, pop and jazz heroes would gather and talk freely - with food grilling, wine pouring, and tapes rolling.
Etta James was my first and only guest in the studio.
Destiny's Child, the group that launched Beyonce, was still unknown on the day a hired limo rolled up 8th Avenue in Brooklyn.
Several minutes after stopping at the house, two large men stepped out of either side, then Etta James. I ignored the bodyguards and waved Etta into the house and back into the studio.
There was small talk. We laughed a lot. Etta James liked to say she didn't "show her teeth" to just anyone, so I felt honored.
She mentioned Ruth Brown, one of her idols, wanting to know how she was doing. Years earlier, Ruth Brown and I had started working together. I watched Ruth emerge from obscurity to a revived singing and acting career.
That led Ruth to a Tony award for Black & Blue and a role as the fast-rappin' disk jockey "Motormouth Maybelle" in John Waters' original Hairspray movie. She was also a national radio hostess and recording artist (again).
I suspected that Etta, who as a teenager, had modeled so much of her sound and look on the Ruth Brown of the 1950's, was studying Ruth's comeback moves.
I offered Etta and her men coffee or cold water and apologies for the lingering smell of fresh paint. Unpacked boxes with records and studio equipment were scattered around the floor. All Etta said was, "You should see some of the places I've played."
We spent most of the session talking about Rage to Survive, the book in which the co-authors tell the stories about the wild child Jamesetta Hawkins (Etta's original name), the drugs, the abuse, the cold-hearted, profit-obsessed music business.
I ended up using about forty of the interview's tamest minutes for a public radio profile. (I tried to get a less trimmed-down version of the Etta interview on commercial radio, but they'd never heard of her.)
We talked a bit about "At Last," an afterthought now that Etta's career was back on track. Her recorded performance came about as a result of a friendship with Harvey Fuqua. Harvey had a singing group called the Moonglows, a popular R&B act of the 50s.
Etta and Harvey had cut some tracks together as Betty & Dupree. (Etta also did some studio work during this period, including a Chuck Berry session where she remembers singing backup harmonies with an up-and-coming youngster named Marvin Gaye.)
Harvey eventually helped get Etta on Chess, the company where the Moonglows recorded their hits. Etta and Harvey recorded some new duets at the label's Chicago studios in May of 1960.
Harvey heard something in Etta's voice that transcended rock and roll, so he gave her a book to study. It contained 100 popular standards, including a 1942 Glenn Miller hit called "At Last." The tune had been revived in 1957 by Nat King Cole in a lush arrangement for Capitol Records. "At Last," as recorded by Etta James for Chess' Argo line in October 1960, became one of her best-selling hit singles and, eventually, her signature song.
Almost a half century later, it's the Obama inaugural ball and it's Beyonce, not Peaches, singing "At Last."
I learned from a few scattered reports that what I'd imagined turned out to be true: Etta was furious. As a result, she was "a little down."
I also knew that, for Etta, "a little down" could mean much more. But no one seemed to care, and it was Beyonce's version that the radio kept playing. Beyonce had portrayed Etta James in the film Cadillac Records, very loosely based on the Chess story.
Having been lucky enough to spend hours with Etta James in Los Angeles and Brooklyn, I knew that the wild child, the rowdy teenager who practiced in the high school bathroom and fought through some of life's toughest struggles, would one day laugh about it all, and sing "At Last" to an audience on its feet.
But first, Etta vowed to "whup that girl's ass."
© 2015 WBGO
April 24, 2015. Posted by Monifa Brown.
There’s something about Ella. “I sing like I feel,” she once confessed.
This candor and transparency are why Ella’s voice transcends age and race, and has earned followers around the world.
It’s close to twenty years since Ella left the physical realm, and nearly eighty since she first wowed audiences at the Apollo Theatre’s famed ‘Amateur Hour’ as a teenager in Harlem.
She entered the contest as a dancer - luckily for us, at the last minute, she decided to sing instead. But her irrepressible sense of swing probably came in part from the fact that she knew how to dance.
Ella’s voice embodies girlish charm and endearing wit. Her exuberance is contagious.
She was a tour-de-force on an up-tempo swinger, then could turn around and deliver a ballad with the same great sense of drive.
Few, for my money, can take a lyric, whether by Berlin, Porter, Arlen, or Rodgers and Hart, and make you hear it in a new light like Ella.
Even Ira Gershwin once declared, "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”
Ella had amazing chops. She could – and did - hang with the best of them: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Flip Phillips, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young.
She was also prolific – she recorded over 200 albums. From her early dates with Chick Webb to Jazz At The Philharmonic and her Pablo sessions with Joe Pass, she shows her ability to evolve as an artist, the true mark of a creative genius.
Pianist Jimmy Rowles, her accompanist and one of those who knew her best, spoke of her magical presence in this way.
"Music comes out of her,” he said. “When she walks down the street, she leaves notes.”
Her Grammy-winning album Mack The Knife is one of my favorites. It’s a classic example of her onstage brilliance, charisma and ingenuity.
The album was recorded live in Berlin, with pianist Paul Smith, guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Wilfred Middlebrooks and drummer Gus Johnson.
It showcases her technical proficiency, the agility of her instrument, and often-humorous approach to improvisations.
Her scatting on the title track, where she forgets the lyrics and doesn’t miss a beat, are priceless.
As a kid in the 70s, I was star-struck when I first saw Ella in a Memorex commercial.
I used to borrow my dad’s Memorex cassettes to record my favorite songs off the radio and create my own mix tapes.
In the commercial, Ella’s voice shatters a crystal glass. I’d never seen that before. I thought she was some sort of super hero.
Rightfully dubbed “The First Lady of Song,” Ella’s ability to deliver a lyric without gimmicks, and with clarity and potency, is unrivaled.
Billy Strayhorn sums it up best. "Ella is the boss lady. That's all.”
© 2015 WBGO
April 3, 2015. Posted by Rhonda Hamilton.
Cape Town, South Africa’s “Mother City,” is a photographer’s paradise.
It’s breathtakingly beautiful – from the top of Table Mountain, you can see miles of white sandy beaches that rim the coastline, and crystal clear ocean, in every shade of blue.
More spectacular vistas can be seen from the Upper Lighthouse at the Cape Of Good Hope.
Looking out from Table Mountain, you see a small land mass in the ocean.
That’s Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and hundreds of other political prisoners were incarcerated under Apartheid.
I always assumed the island was named after a person, but “Robben” is the Dutch word for seal. Today, it's home to over 20 species of mammals and is a bird sanctuary with a large African penguin population.
We were privileged to have a former inmate, Jama Mbatyoti, as one of our guides.
He was arrested in 1976 for planning a march in his hometown of Port Elizabeth, and was confined for five years.
You could hear the pain in his words, and see it permanently etched in his face, as he spoke of the indignities he and his fellow prisoners suffered.
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for twenty-seven years. He spent eighteen on Robben Island.
Mandela’s cell was in section B, where the leaders of political organizations were held, in isolation from the rest of the prison community.
Mr. Mbatyoti told us that Mandela liked to garden, and worked this small patch of land whenever he had the opportunity.
© 2015 WBGO