January 25th is the birthdate of Jamesetta Hawkins, know to us as Etta James. Miss James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, the same year as Creedence, Cream, the Doors, Sly and the Family Stone, Van Morrison and Dick Clark if you need a clue.
Jerry Wexler, Atlantic Records’ legendary producer, describes Etta James as “the greatest of all modern blues singers…the undisputed Earth Mother.” Her raw, unharnessed vocals and hot-blooded eroticism has made disciples of singers ranging from Janis Joplin to Bonnie Raitt. James’ pioneering 1950s hits – “The Wallflower” and “Good Rockin’ Daddy” – assure her place in the early history of rock and roll alongside Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Ray Charles. In the Sixties, as a soulful singer of pop and blues diva compared with the likes of Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, James truly found her musical direction and made a lasting mark.
Widely held to be the greatest singer in American pop history and one of the most successful entertainers of the 20th century, Sinatra was also the first modern pop superstar. He defined that role in the early 1940’s when his first solo appearances provoked the kind of mass pandemonium that later greeted Elvis Presley and the Beatles.
During a show business career that spanned more than 50 years and comprised recordings, film and television as well as countless performances in nightclubs, concert halls and sports arenas, Sinatra stood as a singular mirror of the American psyche.
His evolution from the idealistic crooner of the early 1940’s to the sophisticated swinger of the 50’s and 60’s seemed to personify the country’s loss of innocence. During World War II, Sinatra’s tender romanticism served as the dreamy emotional link between millions of women and their husbands and boyfriends fighting overseas. Reinventing himself in the 50’s, the starry-eyed boy next door turned into the cosmopolitan man of the world, a bruised romantic with a tough-guy streak and a song for every emotional season.
In a series of brilliant conceptual albums, he codified a musical vocabulary of adult relationships with which millions identified. The haunted voice heard on a jukebox in the wee small hours of the morning lamenting the end of a love affair was the same voice that jubilantly invited the world to “come fly with me” to exotic realms in a never-ending party.
W. C. Handy was born on this date in 1873, the son of former slaves.
I hate to see that evenin’ sun go down,
I hate to see that evenin’ sun go down,
‘Cause my baby has left this town.
If I’m feelin’ tomorrow, just like I feel today,
If I’m feelin’ tomorrow, like I feel today,
I’ll pack my trunk and make my get-away.
St. Louis woman, with all her diamond rings,
Stole that man of mine, by her apron strings;
If it wasn’t for powder, and her store-bought hair,
That man I love wouldn’t’ve gone nowhere!
W.C. Handy is widely recognized by his self-proclaimed moniker, “Father of the Blues” due to his steadfast and pioneering efforts to document, write and publish blues music and his life-long support of the genre. Although much of his musical taste leaned toward a more sophisticated and polished sound, Handy was among the first to recognize the value of the blues, and Southern black music in general, as an important American legacy. Handy was an accomplished bandleader and songwriter who performed throughout the South before continuing his career in New York. He came across the Delta blues in the late 1890s, and his composition “Memphis Blues,” published in 1912, was the first to include “blues” in the title. Some historians don’t consider “Memphis Blues” to be an actual blues song, however it did influence the creation of other blues tunes, including the historic “Crazy Blues,” which is commonly known as the first blues song to ever be recorded (by Mamie Smith in 1920). A Memphis park was named after Handy in recognition of his contribution to blues and the Blues Foundation recognizes the genre’s achievements annually with the prestigious W.C. Handy award.
NPR told the Handy and St. Louis Blues stories as part of the NPR 100 in 2000. Report includes Handy’s own reminiscences and the complete 1925 recording of the song by Bessie Smith accompanied by Louis Armstrong, possibly the most influential recording in American music history.
The Smith-Armstrong recording makes my desert island list every time.