Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Darryl Carter - Looking Straight Ahead

When Preston Lauterbach and I booked Hi Rhythm and Otis Clay to perform at the O.V. Wright Memorial Benefit in 2008, they invited us to a rehearsal the night before, way uptown at Fred Hodges' house. I was truly in awe, as there seemed to be a Memphis Soul Legend everywhere I looked... besides Otis, there was Percy Wiggins, Floyd Newman, every Hodges brother, Howard Grimes, Mickey Gregory, Archie Turner, Tommy Lee Williams, and a guy hanging out on the sidelines who seemed somehow to be the center of gravity. I had no idea who he was, and it wasn't until later on that someone told me it was Darryl Carter. I knew the name, but it was difficult for me to place him.
At the show the following night at the (now defunct) Ground Zero, he knew just about everybody, and seemed to be everywhere at once. Even though I had just met him, I felt like I knew him my whole life.
When The Masqueraders took the stage, Darryl was up there with them singing at the top of his lungs. As I said, I wasn't sure of what the connection was, but it was obvious that he had been an integral part of the Memphis Soul scene for many years.
At the graveside Memorial dedication the next morning, he gave me his number and told me to call him. "I'm the only one who cut hits at all three major studios in Memphis," he said. Intrigued, I spoke with him again soon after I got back to New York, and started up a conversation that's been going on ever since.
In 2009, when I brought Sir Lattimore to Memphis on the fabled Road Trip, we got to hang out with Darryl and his good friend Howard Grimes. Darryl remembered Lattimore from when he recorded at American back in 1967 and '68... we'll talk more about that night a little later on.
At the Willie Mitchell Memorial Celebration in January of 2010, the impeccably dressed Darryl Carter was there in the middle of everything, right where he belonged. I am honored to call him my friend, and I've been working on this post, which I hope will shed a little light on the man and his music, for something like three years... 
Darryl came up on Chicago's West Side, a product of the blues that echoed up and down Maxwell Street when he was a kid. He knew he wanted to sing and, the way he tells it, he met a guy in the Post Office one day who told him, "Son, if you really want to get into music, you need to go to Memphis. Memphis is where it's at..." and that's exactly what he did, arriving in the Bluff City in early 1965. Asking around, he heard about a funky little studio that some guy had just opened up in North Memphis, and got up the courage to go knock on the door.

According to Darryl, when Chips Moman heard him sing the Johnny Mathis number he had rehearsed, he told him, "With a voice like that, maybe you should become a songwriter!" Moman encouraged him to 'hang around' the studio nonetheless and, in addition to working on his songwriting, Darryl gradually learned the nuts and bolts of working the board and making records from him, something he remains grateful for to this day. He was in 'on the ground floor' at American, and was an old hand by the time Chips put together the 827 Thomas Street Band, and truly opened for business in 1967.

OSCAR TONEY, JR. (Bell 1011)
No Sad Song

It was only natural that one of the first songs Chips pitched to his new customers was one Darryl had written. First recorded by Paul Revere & the Raiders for their Goin' To Memphis LP, Papa Don Schroeder was the next one to pick up on it, cutting it on Oscar Toney, Jr for the album For Your Precious Love. The 1967 date stamp on this B Side of a UK single we have here places its release prior to the #22 R&B hit Joe Simon would have with it in early 1968.

John Richbourg liked No Sad Songs so much that he would make it the title track of Simon's next album. He had been sending Sound Stage 7's entire roster of artists to American since shortly after Papa Don had broken the ice in April of 1967. Darryl recalls working closely with Allen Orange as he brought in folks like Ted Ford, Arthur Alexander, Ella Washington, Roscoe Robinson, Sam Baker, Roscoe Shelton and good ol' Sir Lattimore Brown, cutting some of the best Soul records ever made in the process. With the chart success Bell and Monument were having at the studio, it was only a matter of time before Atlantic showed up. Chips told me, "I loved it every time they sent Tom Dowd down to us, because I knew I'd be getting my equipment upgraded for free!"

THE SWEET INSPIRATIONS (from Atlantic SD-8155)
Oh! What A Fool I've Been

Jerry Wexler booked Esther Phillips into American for a couple of sessions in the Spring of 1967, but things really heated up in July when they brought Wilson Pickett in with a full entourage that included Bobby Womack and King Curtis. The music they cut that Independence Day weekend (songs like I'm In Love and Memphis Soul Stew) will never die. When they bought The Sweet Inspirations down there that August to finish their first album, they cut this little known gem, composed by Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham and Darryl Carter. Amazing.

L.C.COOKE (Wand 1171)
Half A Man

When Pickett left American that Summer, Womack decided to stay. He and Darryl Carter hit it off right away, and when Florence Greenberg sent Sam Cooke's brother L.C. down to Memphis soon afterwards, he cut this tune, which may have been the first song that Darryl and Bobby wrote together. Produced by Chips, you can hear Carter singing back there in the 'Moman Tabernacle Choir' (the flip of this sought after 45, by the way, was the Penn/Oldham classic Let's Do It Over, which Joe Simon had cut while they were still at Fame in 1965).

BOBBY WOMACK (Minit 32030)
Broadway Walk

All four songwriters - Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Bobby Womack and Darryl Carter - got together shortly after that and came up with this unreal 45 which, in my opinion, should have been a smash hit. Again produced by Chips Moman, this record is just da bomb, and yet it remains virtually unknown. Talk about cookin' on all burners! That's Darryl who asks "Hey Man, What You Doin' Up Here On Broadway...? With shout outs to Pickett and the Godfather, this one should have been as big as Funky Broadway or Skinny Legs and All  ...except that the Disk Jockeys still had a problem with playing Bobby's records, Darryl said, and so it was relegated to the B Side of his second Minit single, Somebody Special, instead.

WILSON PICKETT (from Atlantic SD-8183)
Let's Get An Understanding

When The Wicked One himself returned to American in March of 1968 to record his next album (presumably around the same time Broadway Walk was cut), he got together with Womack and composed the eternal title track, then proceeded to cover five more Womack tunes, two of which were written with Darryl; Remember, I Been Good To You (check out Carter & Womack on the backup vocals!), and this one on which Pickett is also credited as a co-writer. "I think I'll just step back and let the band cook a little bit, alright fellas?" Yeah, you right!

When Womack's third Minit single, What Is This, actually charted, reaching #33 R&B in May of 1968, the company finally sat up and took notice (we'll talk more about that one in a moment). They suddenly wanted an album's worth of material from Bobby. I'm not sure why they decided to neglect the other four sides they had in the can already on the three issued 45s (especially Broadway Walk), but the only ones they wanted were Somebody Special and What Is This. Womack cut his own versions of the two biggest hits he had given Pickett and then (as we mentioned back in 2007),"He started fooling around with a few standards with the guys in the studio, and the album that Minit finally received contained covers of Fly Me To The Moon, Moonlight In Vermont and California Dreamin'. They were none too thrilled..."As it turned out, though, two of those would hit the R&B top twenty, and the heat was on from Minit for a follow-up album.

BOBBY WOMACK (Minit 32071)
It's Gonna Rain

Getting back down to business with Darryl at that point, together they would compose some of Bobby's most enduring material. This rockin' little number we have here would be the first of the new songs they wrote together to be released, and would break into the R&B top fifty in early 1969. Check out the interplay between Bobby's guitar and Tommy Cogbill's unbelievable bass line... just top shelf stuff, boys and girls!

Bobby's next two singles were co-written with Darryl as well, the infectious Oh How I Miss You Baby, which clocked in at #14 R&B, and More Than I Can Stand which climbed to #23. All are taken from Womack's landmark second LP, My Prescription, which also contains another of their compositions, the hauntingly beautiful Thank You. Produced by Chips Moman, this essential album represents, in my opinion, the high water mark of R&B music recorded at American Sound. By the time it was released, however, both Womack and Carter were gone. I'm not sure exactly why, but Soul had pretty much left the building by the time Elvis showed up in early 1969...

When Womack headed back to California, Darryl was right behind him.

Ready to make a go of it as an artist, he signed on with Mickey Stevenson's Venture Records. Known as 'Motown West', Venture was an MGM subsidiary run by Stevenson after he left Berry Gordy in Detroit. He brought some heavy hitters out to Los Angeles with him, like Clarence Paul, Willie Hutch and Leon Ware. Opening his own studio in Beverly Hills, Stevenson brought in tight local outfit The Seven Souls as his house band, and was ready to make a little noise.

DARRYL CARTER (Venture 611)

Part of a West Coast scene at the label that included cool cats like Johnny Watson and Larry Williams, Darryl continued to write with Womack and his collaborator at Minit, Jimmy Holiday. According to Darryl, this rockin' dancer they came up with was starting to hit out on the coast, but MGM had no clue how to promote a black record, and didn't even press enough copies to keep up with demand. Disillusioned, he headed home to Memphis. Up until now the next part of the story seemed a little hazy, but thanks to my compadre Dan Phillips over at Home of the Groove, I think I'm beginning to see the light...

What You Gonna Do

In his excellent post about Margie Joseph last year, Dan put up her second Volt single (released in October of 1969), What You Gonna Do, which, he pointed out, was written by Bobby Womack. The song didn't really ring any bells, so I googled it. Although Womack's version didn't make it onto his first album, it turns out it had been released as the B Side of What Is This (Minit 32037). I found the original posted on YouTube and, according to the label scan, Womack had co-written it with Masquerader David Sanders and Darryl Carter... well, what do ya know! Once again, how this awesome track could have been left off Fly Me To The Moon remains a mystery.

Now... Margie Joseph was married to influential Crescent City DeeJay Larry McKinley, who had been producing her records down there with underground w√ľnderkinds Wilson and Earl Turbinton, under the name of something called 'Colsoul of New Orleans'. After a couple of Okeh singles that went nowhere, he managed to get her signed by Volt in Memphis, with the apparent understanding that her records would still bear the 'Colsoul' name (so he could continue to collect on the production royalties, one would imagine). According to Dan, "McKinley told Rob Bowman... that Isaac Hayes actually did the main production work on What You Gonna Do." Hayes, much like our man Darryl, hung around American with Chips in the early days of the studio, and it's not much of a stretch to imagine that they were good friends. It makes sense, then, that Isaac would have pitched this underachiever of a tune (that his recently returned prodigal pal had written) to McKinley.

Your Sweet Lovin'

It also makes sense that when Don Davis brought Freddie Briggs down from Detroit, it was Hayes who partnered him with Darryl Carter to produce Margie (for Colsoul) from then on. [Darryl has since told me that he heard Margie singing one day as he was walking down the hallway at Stax, and he stopped to listen. When he introduced himself, she came over and hugged him - "I've been looking for you!" she said, and he brought her to meet Freddie.] They took her down to Muscle Shoals Sound and cut this killer number they had written especially for her. It would become her first chart hit, climbing into the R&B Top 50 in the Summer of 1970. Their follow-up single on Joseph, just an amazing cover of Stop! In The Name Of Love, did even better. The Volt LP Margie Joseph Makes a New Impression was so good that Atlantic signed her away from them in 1972...

THE MAD LADS (Volt 4041)
Seeing Is Believin'

While Margie was still ascending the charts, Volt put Darryl and Freddie together with Al Jackson, Jr. to produce this smooth number they had written with Mad Lads lead singer Gary Williams. According to Rob Bowman, "By this point, The Mad Lads were down to a threesome... and did an impressive job, but radio support was simply not forthcoming." Carter told me (just as Jimmy Hughes had a couple of years ago) that it was easy to kind of get lost in the shuffle during this period at Stax, especially if you weren't on the main imprint, as there didn't seem to be much in the way of promotion beyond their top selling artists.

JOHN KaSANDRA (from Respect 2602)
(What's Under) The Natural Do

I'm not sure if Carter viewed it as a step down from Volt (although I guess that's pretty much what it was), but the company next called upon him to produce the first single on their new Respect subsidiary (and the album it was taken from, Color Me Human) with a guy Al Bell had hired, Tom Nixon. It was Nixon who had built Mickey Stevenson's aforementioned studio out in Beverly Hills, so I imagine he knew Darryl well. That's Larry Lee playing that funky guitar on this one which, predictably, went nowhere. Darryl read the handwriting on the wall at that point, and decided to kiss Memphis (and Stax) goodbye, and go somewhere himself.

This time, though, he was headed for New York.
Perception had grown out of (of all things) a psychedelic-era production company started by a guy named Jimmy Curtiss. By 1969, the firm had started a record label and was looking to expand their horizons into R&B and Jazz, signing heavy hitters like Dizzy Gillespie and James Moody. Renowned Chicago disk jockey, and former A&R chief at Chess and Mercury, Boo Frazier, was made Perception's vice-president, and he was the man that brought Darryl into the fold.

DARRYL CARTER (Perception 500)

I don't own this 45 and, despite years of looking, have never even seen one offered for sale. I ripped this B Side off of YouTube, and it's great, but for some reason the flip is nowhere to be found. According to Darryl, Perception had pulled out all the stops for that top side, Never Forget Where You Came From, sending him down to Sigma Sound in Philadelphia to record it in 1971, and adding strings later on in Detroit. "It got the number one pick in the country," he said, "and it looked like it was going to hit big, but the label put all their promotional efforts behind some kid..." I'm not sure who that might have been but, within a year the company had hit the big time with King Harvest's Dancing In The Moonlight, and their attention had definitely drifted away from R&B. Darryl was on his way back to Memphis.

BOBBY WOMACK (United Artists 50902)
Woman's Gotta Have It

Yes, I know I have this up on The A Side, but I have 'repeated it here for emphasis', so to speak. As I was saying over there, "In my opinion, this is one of the best records ever made. Released in April of 1972, It was Bobby Womack's first number one hit, and the last truly great recording cut at American Sound in Memphis." The fact that they were able to re-capture the magic, and send this record to the very top of the R&B charts (after having been absent from the studio for almost four years), shows what important figures both Darryl Carter and Bobby Womack are in the history of 827 Thomas Street...  a fact that needs to be further acknowledged, I think.

I'm Afraid Of Losing You

Willie Mitchell, who had worked on Womack's first two albums at American (before vowing never to return), knew a thing or two about number one hits in those days, and liked what he heard. After signing Frankie Gearing and Quiet Elegance to the label, he cut this beautiful song Darryl had written with Isaac Hayes' cohort Helen Washington (presumably while still at Stax) as their debut single. According to Darryl, Willie brought him and Womack in to Royal (apparently while they were still in town working on 'Woman's Gotta Have It') for this session, and that's Bobby playing Teenie Hodges' guitar! Check out Howard Grimes... just excellent stuff, man.

How Far Am I From New York City

Across town at Billy Butler's Mark XVI studio, 'Bowlegs' Miller was also paying attention, and cut another of Darryl's Stax era compositions (this time co-written with Freddie Briggs) on Ollie Nightingale for MGM subsidiary Pride. Ollie had left Stax around the same time as Darryl citing, once again, their lack of promotion (among other things). This great side also appeared on the glorious LP Sweet Surrender, which our hero Sir Shambling calls "a must have for any self-respecting Soul fan." I concur.

The Only Thing That Saved Me (Was The Love She Gave Me)

Back in New York, Darryl hooked up with a small time record man (with apparent delusions of grandeur) named Lonnie Kaufman. He was starting up something called the 'Transworld Telefilm Corporation', which would include a subsidiary label called TTC. He hired former Jubilee producer James Shaw (who had worked with Little Buster, and a host of others), and when Darryl brought them a song he had written, Shaw 'took a piece' of the record, listing himself as a co-producer, arranger and conductor.

"Don Crews was the backbone of American," Darryl told me, and with Chips gone to Atlanta, he brought Shaw out to Don's 'American East', Onyx Studios in East Memphis, to cut TTC's lone release [I've since found out that there was at least one more 45 issued by the label... thanks, Eli!]. Don told me that Darryl was a 'good fella', and he was happy to have him. Pretty funky stuff, it's got this kind of atmospheric blues thang goin' on... wonder who's blowing that harp? Despite Kaufman's (albeit dated) Big Apple connections which secured Darryl an appearance on The Joe Franklin Show (!), and a mention as 'the next big thing' in Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town column in the Daily News, the record (and the corporation) was sinking fast. Darryl knew some people at United Artists in New York, who had just purchased the industry giant Robbins Publishing from MGM. They offered Darryl a job working with Buddy Kaye in their Los Angeles office and,  just like that, he was headed back to the Left Coast.

Darryl told me he showed up for work one day and Willie Mitchell was sitting there waiting for him. He couldn't believe it. They went into his office and Willie played him the record he had just cut on Syl Johnson, We Did It. They both agreed it was good (it would eventually hit #23 R&B in early 1973), but Willie thought it could be better. "I'm spreading myself too thin," Willie told him, "I can't do all this work myself. Why don't you come back to Memphis and help me out? We both know that's where you belong." He was right, of course, and Darryl knew it. It didn't take him long to make up his mind, and his arrival at Hi inaugurated the most consistently creative period in the label's history.

O.V. WRIGHT (Back Beat 628)
I'd Rather Be (Blind, Cripple & Crazy)

Soon after he got back home, Darryl told me, he decided to go over to the studio to check things out. When he got there, O.V. Wright was standing out there on South Lauderdale Street, taking a break between sessions for his forthcoming album. As we discussed back in 2009: "He and O.V. were... shooting the breeze back and forth, when one of them said something like 'I'd rather be Blind, Crippled and Crazy than to ever do that again...' Carter recalls telling O.V. 'There's a song title right there...' and they went back into the studio and found Charles Hodges sitting at the organ. 'We wrote that song together, the three of us, in about 25 or 30 minutes,' Darryl said, 'and we cut it that same day.'" Imagine?

This is just about as good as it gets, as is the album they were working on, Memphis Unlimited, which is universally acknowledged as O.V. Wright's defining work, and one of the greatest Soul albums of all time. In addition to I'd Rather Be... (which hit #33 R&B when it was released as the first single pulled from the record), Darryl would contribute the song that had been his ill-fated TTC 45, The Only Thing That Saved Me, which O.V. just absolutely nailed, making it his own forever in the process. Memphis Unlimited represents, to me, the full maturation of Willie Mitchell's 'Sound of Memphis', and it was the addition of Darryl Carter to the team that helped pull it all together. He was home.

OTIS CLAY (Hi 2239)
I Can't Make It Alone

Now that Darryl was in the house, Willie cut a song he had written with Johnny Keyes (who had been a Magnificent with L.C. Cooke,  and Isaac Hayes' road manager) on Otis Clay, whose vocal approach was similar to Darryl's. Check out the amazing Rhodes-Chalmers-Rhodes spacey background, James Mitchell's punchy horn lines and, as always, Howard Grimes immaculate percussion. Overshadowed by one of Reverend Al's biggest hits (Call Me - Hi 2237), this great record never stood a chance.

Looking Straight Ahead

As part of the deal that brought Carter back to Memphis, I'm sure Willie had promised him a chance to record again under his own name, and they got right down to it, cutting this one in the Spring of 1973. Most significantly, Darryl shares production credits with Willie, which is something that as far as I know had never happened before, and must have been part of the package as well. Written with Hi stalwart Earl Randle and Memphis disk jockey Bernard Miller (who would also be listed as a co-writer on Ann Peebles' mega-hit I Can't Stand The Rain around the same time), this one took a little getting used to, I think, and wound up being his only release as an artist for the label (the mellow flip, Sunshine, although it had been written with Buddy Kaye out on the Coast, didn't fare any better).

Back For A Taste Of Your Love

At this point, Darryl rolled up his sleeves and got down to the business of doing what Willie had initially hired him to do, work with Syl Johnson. Both originally from Chicago, it was a perfect match-up, and Johnson took this great number they wrote together (which was released as the follow-up to the 45 Willie had played for Darryl out in L.A.), to #16 R&B in the Fall of 1973, when Al Green just owned the top five. Not bad.

Darryl would work with Syl on his next 45, I'm Yours, which also charted, and on Johnson's first Hi LP, Diamond In The Rough, co-writing great songs like Let Yourself Go and I Want To Take You Home (To See Mama) (both of which made the R&B charts when they were pulled from the album as Johnson's next two singles) as well as the magnificent B Side, I Hear The Love Chimes, with the rest of the Royal Studio crew. It was reviewed as a Top Album Pick by Billboard in October of 1974; "He has a style quite his own, mixing smooth vocals against funky backgrounds... While the cuts on this LP are good for the disco market, they are more than simple dance records." Indeed.

When The Masqueraders came to Memphis in 1967, it was Bobby Womack and Darryl Carter who convinced them to forego Stax and come work with them at American, resulting in some amazing records. As they told Heikki Suasalo, "Chips and Don Crews, who were the owners of the American Group, busted up, and we left. That was in 1970. We went back to Texas... Darryl Carter at American went over to Royal, producing over there... Darryl and Willie had been talking about us, and if we weren't with anybody at the time, then we could come down there and we could probably get something going. When we got there, Willie just kinda stepped aside and let Darryl produce us."

Now That I've Found You

Actually, I think the promise of being a producer at Hi was part of the initial package that Willie had offered Darryl, and he had his sights on his friends the Masqueraders all along. Released as the B side of both of the singles they would cut at Royal, this minor keyed pleader just kind of rolls along until it gets under your skin and takes you there with it. Written and produced by Darryl, it is as far as I can tell, the first time anyone but Willie Mitchell received a sole production credit on a Hi 45.

Wake Up Fool

This fantastic record here is one of the best things ever cut on South Lauderdale Street. Written by the group, and produced by Darryl, that's the great Sam Hutchins (who had those two awesome AGP releases under his own name) on the lead vocals. Were these guys great or what? With Charles Hodges and Howard Grimes just locked in, this one is definitely in the pocket! "At Hi they were basically just concentrating on Al Green," Tex Wrightsill told Soul Express, "so we got lost in the shuffle." They would sign with Isaac Hayes' new HBS label soon after this killer record got lost as well.

Do I Need You

Darryl Carter had become an integral part of Willie Mitchell's songwriting team at Hi, and got together with Don Bryant and Ann Peebles to compose this one which, despite (or maybe because of) it's similarity to I Can't Stand The Rain stalled at #57 on the R&B Hot 100 in the Summer of 1974. According to John Ridley, "DJs and some commentators were beginning to say that Mitchell's productions had become formulaic... that all the releases on Hi sounded the same.

It's Time You Made Up Your Mind

"Part of the response to this was to set up a new label... so Pawn Records was born." Willie brought in the Bradley brothers' tight band (and subject of the ongoing Case Seven over on Soul Detective) The Memphians for the label's inaugural release, then brought in a young kid named Willie Clayton to cut this solid soul belter that Darryl, Don Bryant and Earl Randle wrote for him. Still sounding pretty much like those aforementioned 'formulaic' Hi releases, it didn't get much airplay at the time.

SILK STORM (Pawn 3805)
Love Will Make You Feel Better

Going for that seventies falsetto Blue Magic type of vocal group sound on this one, Willie tried changing things up a bit by calling on Hi Rhythm bassist Leroy Hodges to produce this Bryant/Carter composition he had already cut on Quiet Elegance earlier in the year. Neither record charted, and at this point, I think Darryl began to question his place in the organization. With The Masqueraders gone, and no apparent plans to continue to cut him as an artist or use him as a producer, it looked like it was time to move on... again.

Things were changing in Memphis, and Darryl knew it. American was already boarded up and, within a year, the mighty Stax Empire would fall as well. Shortly after that, Willie sold Hi to the highest bidder, and things were never quite the same... "If I worked there, they went out of business," he told me. He moved around a bit, and continued to write. As we've seen, he has composed songs with some of the greatest names in the business, as well as others we haven't mentioned, like Don 'Juan' Mancha and Sir Mack Rice. In a way, perhaps that has been his greatest strength, the rare ability to truly collaborate with other people, and create something greater than the sum of its parts. This last number I offer you here may just be the one that Darryl is most proud of.

Baby Use A Dime

Back when he was working at Robbins Publishing in California, he noticed that one of his heros, Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Otis Blackwell, was a client. He came into the office one day and Darryl said "We should write a song together," to which Otis replied, "OK, how about right now?" and the two of them sat down at the piano and knocked this one out. Incredible. Darryl said he's been saving it for the right artist all these years, and finally cut it himself on an album of his songs that he put together "sort of as a collection of demos," ...And Then I Wrote in 1995.

Darryl is still going strong, and just kind of knocked me out that night in Memphis, when we hung out with Sir Lattimore at Howard Grimes' house in 2009:

Darryl Carter is awesome.

- ed. note: be sure to check out Darryl's 2013 EP, The Woman's Gotta Have It!

Saturday, January 21, 2012


"On the day she died it was blaring from every car radio in America..."

Friday, January 20, 2012

ETTA JAMES 1938-2012

I just heard the news. Although we all knew this day was coming, it still hits pretty hard. She was truly incomparable, and we just loved her...
For now, anyway, please allow me to repost this appreciation of the Great Lady I wrote back in 2006:

Etta James - I'm Gonna Take What He's Got (Cadet 5594)

I'm Gonna Take What He's Got

Jamesetta Hawkins was born in South Central Los Angeles in 1938. Her mother, Dorothy, was 14 years old. Her father, she maintains, was celebrated pool hustler Minnesota Fats. Raised by family friends, her vocal abilities were soon noticed at their church, St. Paul Baptist.

The Echoes of Eden Choir at St. Paul's was the "biggest, baddest and hippest" in L.A., and the Church was a favorite with gospel greats such as Sallie Martin and Rosetta Tharpe, as well as with 'slumming' Hollywood types who filled the back pews. The choir director, Professor James Earl Hines, knew talent when he saw it and took the young Jamesetta under his wing. He coached his young vocal student in what he called "dynamic singing", urging her to "never back off those notes... claim those suckers, sing 'em like you own 'em!" (advice she would clearly take to heart!). The choir was broadcast every Sunday on KOWL, and it wasn't long before the little girl soloist up front became famous in her own right.

She went to school with people like Jesse Belvin and Richard Berry, and became a part of the crowd that hung out on Central Avenue. When her adoptive mother, Mama Lu, died in 1950, Dorothy Hawkins took her daughter to live in the projects of San Francisco. She made friends with a girl named Jean Mitchell, and began harmonizing with her and her sister, Abye at the rec center near their apartment. She eventually moved in with them, and they began calling themselves "The Creolettes".

In the summer of 1954, Hank Ballard and The Midnighters had a huge hit with Work With Me Annie, a suggestive rocker that would hold the number one slot on the R&B charts for 7 weeks. Jamesetta re-wrote the lyrics and came up with an 'answer song' she called "Roll With Me Henry". The Creolettes performed the tune all over town, and people ate it up. Abye, who was older than the other girls, got herself introduced to west coast R&B legend Johnny Otis, and talked him into letting her group audition for him. He was duly impressed, and offered to make them a part of his act. Jamesetta forged her mother's signature on a permission form, and headed back to L.A..

Otis renamed the group "The Peaches", and was also the one responsible for switching the syllables around and coming up with 'Etta James'. He landed the group a deal with the Bihari brothers' Modern Records, and they released Roll With Me Henry in the fall of 1954. Radio stations were refusing to play it because of the suggestive title, and King Records, who had released The Midnighter's original hit was threatening to sue Modern. They pulled the record, paid Sid Nathan off, and changed the name of the song to The Wallflower, agreeing to credit Ballard as a co-writer down the line. The song, with old pal Richard Berry playing the part of Henry, went straight to number one, spending 19 weeks on the R&B charts. A follow-up single, Good Rockin' Daddy (with Jessie Belvin on background vocals), would also crack the top ten. Etta James was in the house!

She began traveling the country in package tours like the Top Ten Revue, working with everyone from Little Willie John to Bill Doggett, Bo Diddley, Little Richard and even Clifton Chenier. She forged lifelong friendships with folks like kindred souls Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Larry Williams, and truly 'went to school' on the R&B road ("Man, I saw some stuff", she says).

The Biharis sent Etta down to Cosimo's studio in New Orleans in 1956 and again in 1957 to try and capture some rock & roll magic. Although songs like Tough Lover and The Pick-Up featured Matassa's 'A' team of crack studio musicians like Lee Allen and Earl Palmer, they failed to make the charts.

It was around this time that Etta fell in love with the suave and sophisticated Harvey Fuqua who, along with his group The Moonglows, seemed to own the top ten at the time. They told her that if she wanted to make some real money, she should get herself signed by their record company, Chess. Broke and hungry, she and her old friend (and original 'Peach') Abye made their way to Chicago.

It took three thousand dollars to buy out her contract from Modern (her last Bihari single was actually released on their new label, Kent), and Leonard Chess, who was always on the look-out for female talent, advanced her another five grand. He assigned ace arranger Riley Hampton to work with her on a song written by Billy Davis and Berry Gordy called All I Could Do Was Cry. It was a huge hit, climbing to number 2 R&B, and paving the way for the lush orchestration of most of her early Argo sides.

She and Harvey would appear together on a couple of Chess releases (as Etta and Harvey), and were also living together at The Sutherland Hotel, working on some old songs. Leonard was so impressed by what he heard that he had Hampton work up arrangements for an entire album of standards. At Last was a huge success, and both the title track and Trust In Me would crack the top five in early 1961.

Etta continued to chart regularly, with great songs like Something's Got A Hold On Me and Stop The Wedding showing off her gospel shout. She also managed to become a full-fledged junkie by this time, and problems in her personal life began piling up. Leonard Chess was always there to catch her when she fell, it seemed, and although she found it hard to trust him completely, they basically needed each other.

Leonard was jealous of the success the "New York Jews" were having recording down South, and once Jerry Wexler had his famous falling out with Rick Hall down in Muscle Shoals, Chess was happy to step in. He signed an agreement with Fame Studios that guaranteed them more money, and began by sending new label signees Irma Thomas and Laura Lee to record there. Lee's Dirty Man broke into the top 20, and set the stage for what was to come.

In August of 1967, Etta James arrived in Florence, Alabama with her entourage, trunks of furs and fancy clothes, two french poodles, and Leonard Chess in tow. By her own admission, she was "pregnant and cranky and ready to blow the doors off the studio".

That's just what she did.

Over the course of a 3 day period, "Rick Hall & Staff" (which included Gene "Bowlegs" Miller on trumpet, Spooner Oldham on keyboards and Jimmy Johnson on guitar) produced some of the most powerful soul music to ever rise out of Muscle Shoals. When Tell Mama was released in November, it just ate up the charts, breaking into the top 10 R&B and top 40 pop. The B side of that single was a song Etta had written with old friend Ellington "Fuggie" Jordan while he was in prison. When Leonard Chess first heard her sing I'd Rather Go Blind, he had to leave the room, so nobody would see him cry. It really is that good, man.

They returned to Fame Studios in December to finish recording tracks for the Tell Mama album, which was released in January 1968. Our current B side was the flip of Etta's cover of Otis Redding's Security, and was released as the second single from the record in March, rising as high as #11 R&B. Written by the great Don Covay (who, of course, would soon contribute his Chain Of Fools to Aretha's southern soul legacy), it's the real thing, baby! Recorded at the original August sessions (the same day as I'd Rather Go Blind), it just cooks! Check out the Fender Rhodes, the guitar, Etta just beltin' it out! I'll take it. The original album has been re-packaged with 12 more tracks she recorded in Muscle Shoals on her first two visits, as well as on her last session in 1968. Buy it.

When Leonard Chess died in January of 1969, Etta lost her friend and biggest fan. Within a few weeks. a faceless executive visited Etta with the deed to her house, which Leonard had held for her for years so she wouldn't lose it... she was amazed. Although she stayed with Chess (which was now owned by something called GRT corporation) until it all fell apart in the mid-70s, things were never the same.

Jerry Wexler (who has called James "the greatest of all modern blues singers... the undisputed Earth Mother") produced an album on Etta for Warner Brothers in 1978 called Deep In The Night, with both of them agreeing to steer clear of the "disco bullshit". Although it's a great record, it didn't sell much, and she moved on.

In 1980, she would team up with Allen Toussaint in New Orleans to produce an album for MCA called Changes that featured great Sea-Saint session men like Leo Nocentelli, Sam Henry and Herman Ernest. Once again, it was a great record that didn't sell much, and remains out of print to this day!

Etta continued to perform throughout the eighties, although her recorded output didn't amount to much. MCA, which now owned the Chess masters, started re-issuing her material. Ace Records in the UK, which had the rights to the Modern and Kent catalogues began doing the same with her earlier output. My girlfriend (now my darling wife) became a HUGE fan, and we went to see the great "Miss Peaches" whenever we could. At a show at the Beacon Theater in NYC in 1989, she somehow worked her way backstage, and when she saw Etta she just broke down and cried. The great lady hugged her and said, "I know, honey, I know..." .

She signed with Island Records around this time and her albums were perrenial Grammy nominees. When she returned to Muscle Shoals with Jerry Wexler to record The Right Time, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally took notice and she was inducted in 1993. She signed with Private Music in 1994, and finally won her a (long overdue) Grammy for her first album for them, Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday. She continued to turn out quality records for them for the next ten years.

In 2003, Etta was awarded her own star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, as well as receiving a Liftetime Acheivement award at the Grammys. She was awarded another Grammy the following year for her Blues To The Bone album. She had become serious about losing weight at this point, and underwent gastric bypass surgery.

This past March 14th, Etta released a critically acclaimed album on RCA Victor called All The Way that has her covering everyone from Sinatra to Prince. She has lost over 200 pounds, and embarked on an ambitious tour in support of the record on April 8th. Reviews of her first shows have been excellent, and she's scheduled to perform everywhere from Jazz Fest in New Orleans to Carnegie Hall in Manhattan...

That's what I wrote over five years ago.

May She Rest In Peace.