Music can be a form of perfection - with nothing added or subtracted, flawless just the way it is.

Etta James

Here’s a singer! Nicknamed ‘Miss Peaches’, Etta James was born in 1938 and her amazing career spanned from the 50’s to around 2010. She left a great legacy and a big amount of wonderful music for us to enjoy. If you don’t know her, you should read on, because in my experience, everyone seems to like Etta James. Doesn’t matter what music you’re into, there’s a chance you’ll enjoy Etta.

I started listening to Miss Peaches after a recommendation from a good friend and she’s been one of my favourite female singers ever since. She has probably the strongest voice I’ve ever heard in a woman and with it she can sing whatever she wants. She defies labels and genres, so it’s really hard to say what she sings, but I’d say it’s a bit of jazz, a bit of blues, a bit of soul, and a bit of R’n’B. She also didn’t like being put into a category and she said that she just sings what she sings and it doesn’t really matter what you call it.
Most people will know her by the song At Last or maybe I’d Rather Go Blind, but there’s more to her than just those two songs. What I like about her is that it doesn’t matter what mood I’m in, I can always find an album that’s appropriate. Anyway, I would recommend you get some kind of Best Of Etta James album, because it’s hard not to like her, and I doubt you’ll be sorry. Also on the recommended listening list are These Foolish Things from her Billie Holiday tribute album and a duet with Dr John - I’d Rather Go Blind, which I personally think is probably one of the best duets ever.

Miss James had a turbulent life, which sometimes reminds me of that of Billie Holiday. She was born to a 14 year old mother, she never met her father, and throughout her whole life, she was struggling with relationships and drug addictions. You could say that, like Lady Day, she also not only sang the blues, but lived the blues. She explains that because she felt the pain, she could sing the songs the way she did.
Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington were her greatest influences. I talked about Billie Holiday before and I’ll talk about Dinah Washington next time, since they’re all connected in a way.
Etta admired Lady Day greatly. I was watching an interview with Etta, in which she described how the two met in the 50’s. Miss James was only about 17, 18 at the time and when she met her, Billie was very weak. Her feet were all swollen, two men had to help her walk around and, as Etta remembers, her hands were almost like boxing gloves. Etta observed her nervously and eventually their eyes locked and Billie said to her “don’t ever let this happen to you”. In hindsight, she found this intriguing and strange and it had haunted her for a while. The thing is that at the time, she wasn’t into drugs at all, but later when she got addicted, she remembered that moment and wondered “Why did she say that to me? Why did she look in my eyes and say that?”. I think it’s all very interesting how even though she didn’t want it, her idol’s fate got a hold of her and how that very same idol could foresee it. (this is a nice thought)

If I had to choose one song to try to introduce someone to Etta James, it would probably be an obvious choice like All I Could Do Was Cry. But if I wanted to choose a song which would showcase her singing, her interpretations, her raw emotions, it would have to be Feeling Uneasy. The song is just filled with pure pain, sorrow and hurt and she delivers it perfectly. They recorded the album while she was in rehab, and when they recorded this particular song, the withdrawal was especially bad. She was in so much pain that she was actually unable to sing the lyrics. All she could do was shout and moan, so they just let the tape roll and this is what they came up with. A haunting, painful and poignant piece of music.

What do you think? What about Etta James, do you like her? What are your experiences with her music? Please, share your thoughts!

19. November 2012
Billie Holiday Blues Dinah Washington Etta James Jazz Soul Women

James Booker is easily my favourite New Orleans pianist and in light of the anniversary of his passing (I’m a few days late, I hope it still counts), I wanted to do a quick post about him.

Booker is an influential figure in New Orleans music and during his career, he played with many renowned artists such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Dr. John, Ringo Starr, Fats Domino, Stevie Wonder and many others. Unfortunately, he’s hardly known outside of New Orleans. I hope I can help change that a little bit with this post.
In my opinion, his piano playing is just a perfect combination of New Orleans R’n’B, Blues and Jazz. He takes the best parts of each and puts them together. I love how his music is so rich and full, but never too intense. For example, I love the complexities of Art Tatum’s piano playing, but he can be overwhelming, so I’m not always in the mood for his music. On the other hand, I’m always in the mood for James Booker.
Here are two examples of his music. If you like him you should get an album of his, like Junco Partner or a compilation of some kind. I don’t think you’ll regret it. You’ll get your own taste of New Orleans piano at its best.

12. November 2012
Anniversary Blues Dr. John James Booker Jazz New Orleans

Bluesman by Žan Anderle

I absolutely love the blues! I started listening to it at about the same time as jazz and I love it just the same.
My favourite is the acoustic blues. It’s straight on blues without anything to either enhance it or deprive it of its original sound. I definitely enjoy other types of blues as well, but there’s just something about the rawness of the acoustic blues that draws me to it.
With this post, I feel like expounding on it would be thinking about it too much and feeling it too little. So without further ado, here are a few examples of acoustic blues or in other words, what I think is a glimpse of the artist’s pains, problems and sorrows in the form of a song.

(for these next recordings, try to hear past the bad sound quality)
The amazing Robert Johnson and his Sweet Home Chicago. There’s so much to talk about him, he definitely deserves a post of his own, which I’ll probably write sometime soon.

Blind Willie McTell and Stole Rider Blues. He’s a perfect example of someone I enjoy listening to very much, but can’t explain at all why. It’s somewhat of mystery to me.

And here’s something more modern, with a lot better sound quality - Taj Mahal and Stagger Lee. Taj Mahal is someone who I’ll write about in the future too.

What about you? Do you like the blues and do you enjoy the acoustic blues as much as I do? What are some other songs or styles of blues you enjoy? I would love to hear your opinions.

Next time I’ll do a post on Solomon Burke, so until then, everyone.

4. November 2012
Acoustic Blues Blind Willie McTell Blues Robert Johnson Taj Mahal

Sam Cooke has, in my opinion, one of the best voices of all time. It’s soft, full of emotion, it’s reassuring, kind of smokey, creamy and incredibly soothing. If ever there was a voice which could alleviate pain and hurt, I think it would be Sam Cooke’s. Listen to his soulful ‘Ease My Troublin Mind’ to hear what I mean. Whenever I feel blue about something, a cup of tea while listening to Sam Cooke always helps.

Samuel Cook, born in 1931, began his career with the gospel music. He was so successful as a gospel singer, that he was afraid to make a transition into pop music because he didn’t want to disappoint all the religious followers. Eventually despite his fear he made the transition into secular waters with a hit song You Send Me. We can all be grateful he did that, as he is now widely recognized as the forefather of Soul music, which is a predecessor of funk, modern R&B and others, and because he gave rise to the likes of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke, etc. If it weren’t for Sam Cooke, we would be deprived of a lot of wonderful, soulful music.
If you’re not sure what soul music is, listen to this short recording of Sam Cooke humming. I feel that within these 8 bars he explains it much better than anyone could with 8 pages of writing.

Seeing as he was a pioneer of soul music, you could say he was exploring new territory. He had to find a balance between secular pop music and religious gospel and spiritual music and he was bound to have some misses. I feel like some of his pop tunes were quite awful, but in the end he found his style. His album ‘Night Beat’ is phenomenal and is one of my favourite albums. It’s warm, emotional, bluesy, contemplative and easy to listen to. I strongly recommend it to anyone. Give it a listen! If you’re not sure you would like it, here’s little taste of it.

Sam Cooke wrote and recorded innumerable great and memorable songs, but there is one which goes above and beyond and is the most important song he ever made, if you ask me. Inspired by Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing In the Wind’ and drawing from his own experiences, he wrote a stirring and profound song about civil rights, called ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. I think it’s a song everybody has to hear at least once in their life. It has been covered many times and it became an anthem for the African-American civil right movement in the 60’s. If you just listen to it without any knowledge of the background, it’s already a compelling and potent piece of music, but once you place it in its time and context, it becomes something more than just a tune. It becomes a haunting embodiment of things that were happening at the time. On top of all that, the song is very personal - while touring, he experienced the injustices happening in the States firsthand, and not long before Sam wrote the song, his 18 months old son drowned. All of this is reflected in ‘There were times when I thought I couldn’t last for long, but now I think I’m able to carry on’ as well as in the overall weariness and emotion in the song.

But enough talking already. Just listen to the song and you’ll know exactly what I meant and much more.

4. November 2012
Sam Cooke Soul

Last time I wrote a bit about my time in New Orleans and I thought I would continue talking about it for another post.
On a Sunday afternoon, after walking around the French Quarter for the whole day, listening to some great music on the streets, having some great seafood, my girlfriend and I went to hear Kermit Ruffins in Kermit’s Treme Speakeasy pub. The first time I heard of Kermit was in the Treme series, where he played himself. I didn’t think much of him at the beginning but I listened to a few of his albums and immediately started loving his music and now, after seeing him live, I think he’s such a wonderful person. Kermit Ruffins is a New Orleans native who’s been playing music since he was a teenager. If anyone wants to get a quick feeling of New Orleans, you should listen an album of his.
He is an avid cook, he’s always having a good time, and through his music, he makes sure everyone else is happy too. In a sense, Kermit, like his great idol, Louis Armstrong, is just a simple guy trying to draw a smile on your face with his music. He’s warm, unpretentious and humble.

Kermit's Treme Speakeasy by Žan Anderle

We went to many bars in New Orleans, but Kermit’s Treme Speakeasy felt different. I’ve never been in a bar where I felt so at home. It just felt so unbelievably cozy and relaxed.

We noticed right away that pretty much everyone was from the neighbourhood. You could tell from the way people were talking to each other, the way they were behaving and the casual clothes they were wearing. Everyone knew everyone and they were all so friendly. When we came in all the tables were taken, but right away a couple that offered to share their table with us. The waitress came to get our order saying “what can I get you, baby?”. Everything and everyone in that speakeasy made sure we relaxed and had a good time.
Kermit is famous for cooking at his own gigs and this was no different. He gives away his food during the breaks, but we couldn’t wait for that. We ordered one portion (the portions in New Orleans are huge) of red beans and rice with rabbit. We opted for rabbit, because we didn’t feel like some crazy stuff Kermit always grills like raccoon or possum. It was the best red beans and rice we’d had thus far and we had them almost every day in New Orleans, so that says something. Kermit takes his grilling very seriously. He jokes that he’s actually a master chef who does some music on the side. Well, when you try his food, you see that that’s not far from the truth. His food is just as delicious as his music and it tastes the same way - homey, cozy, friendly, happy, indulgent and just simply good.
Before the show, Kermit was standing by the entrance, saying hi to every guest and he knew most of them. The way he was greeting everybody and the way he had so much fun throughout the show, it just felt like he’s having one big house party every week.The band even had a big ICE box filled with beers by the bandstand.
His love and respect for Louis Armstrong was definitely visible in his performance and his choice of songs. The music was wonderful and even though he was joking all the time, the quality of the music never suffered. Kermit called a lot of friends on stage to perform with him which just added to the feeling that this wasn’t a show but a friendly get-together where he and his Barbecue Swingers played for some friends.

When you’re in New Orleans, even if it’s just for a few days, you come to realize that the city is all about delicious, hearty food, friendly people, wonderful music everywhere and having a good time (Laissez les bons temps rouler!). Well, that’s what I feel Kermit is also all about. His everyday life revolves around music, food and indulgence (here’s a good, but long, article about his everyday life) and in the end, you can see that his music, food and his bar embodies this New Orleans personality of his.

29. October 2012
Jazz Kermit Ruffins Louis Armstrong New Orleans