Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Chess Queen, Etta James (1938-2012)

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Chess Queen, Etta James (1938-2012)

Article excerpt

Every now and then we find a truly great artist whose voice seems to speak directly to us in an uncanny way. In such circumstances, we feel we have finally found an artist who specifically speaks to us and who we can therefore claim as our own. I would imagine that for most people this does not often occur. This isn't to say great artists whose work fail to resonate as deeply with us are not deserving of our gratitude and appreciation. It only means we are not able to claim them as our own private inspirational beacons.

Etta James is an artist I have come to claim as a personal guiding light in the same way Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Nina Simone and Charlie Parker resonate with me. But she is even more special to me because I stumbled upon her greatness fortuitously, that is, through the agency of another great artist: Sly Stone.

Sly Stone as we know is one of the more significant forces behind the brand of music known as funk alongside the inimitable James Brown and the intergalactic Georges Clinton. I had been in the trail of Sly Stone for many years trying to fathom the workings of the mind that produced such flamboyant and evanescent creativity. Sly Stone was indeed a pathfinder whose influence can be discerned in wide range of music styles from psychedelia and rock to funk and hip hop and also in the work of musicians such as Prince. He was more than merely a gifted musician. Sly Stone was also a transgressive cultural figure who interrogated the uses and limits of androgyny thereby hoisting rock iconography to another level after the genre-bursting contributions of Little Richard.

Stone was truly touched by the stars and freely shared his brilliance. And then the downward spiral began. He fell victim to the all too familiar rock and roll clich& drugs. Stone former wife, Kath Silva put it simply, "he never outgrew drugs" which eventually hampered his talent and also his health. But I never cease to be amazed by wondrous songs such as "If you want me to stay" which he wrote at the height of his powers and shortly after the beginning of his drug addiction.

"If you want me to stay" is like an immense door that leads to bottomless pools of creativity. Stone's performance in the song is both elegant and wasted. It is as if he is mocking the magnificence of the song itself and also our possible appreciation of it. In a way, his performance seems tongue-in-cheek. "If you want me to stay" lends itself to many kinds of interpretation. Stone appears to be fading out of the song (and perhaps also out the limelight) while the song garners other spurts of momentum in a contrary direction. Stone sings, 'count the days am gone/forger reaching me by phone/'cause I promise I'll be gone for a while". Some critics have noted that Stone is alluding to his withdrawal from the forefront of creativity. In other words, the song is a statement of farewell, a love letter foretelling psychic and spiritual dereliction. Yet within the song, Stone offers numerous tracks for other artists to accomplish creative fulfillment.

James's performance is not only a supreme feat of re-interpretation but a noteworthy instance of one great artist consummating the work of another. In the performance in question, the interplay between singer and backing musicians recalls the kind of chemistry that existed between Billie Holiday, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins in their heyday. James in fact paid Holiday the ultimate compliment in her 1994 Grammy-winning Lady Day tribute album.

Just as Sly Stone is literally vanishing within the magnificence of the song, James re-emerges fully invigorated, snatching threads of immortality, as it were, from the abyss of abjection. The contrast between the sad disappearance of a seminal creative force and the phoenix-like re-emergence of another couldn't be more startling; you weep for one and then you are simultaneously nourished by another. A song, at one level, announces a hurtful severance and then on another level ushers in the plenitude of arrival. …

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