A Personal Note on Etta James’s Passing

Last Friday started out on a high note for me. After days of jumping through hoops to get the soundtrack to my novel, At Last, to go through, I discovered it was live at Amazon. Cause for celebration. I posted the news to Facebook and was about to post on Twitter when I heard the news that Etta James had just died.

It stopped me cold. I didn’t even know how to respond. I’m a huge fan of Etta James, so the news would have saddened me any time, but to learn that she was dying right as the companion soundtrack to At Last was going live added a layer of discomfort to my sorrow. I immediately slammed the breaks on all my personal promotion effort for the day. Unfortunately, there was no way to stop the big push Amazon had scheduled—yes, for that very day. That campaign has been in the works for months. The timing is just . . .  ironic and unfortunate.

I naturally spoke with Barbara Calderaro, the singer who recorded and produced At Last, the Soundtrack. She had the same mixed feeling about the timing. We also shared our memories of Etta James and the impact her music has had on us.

Here’s what Barbara had to say: “I always loved Etta James’ music and her earthy delivery of some great songs. As a vocalist who sings jazz standards (among other genres) I always enjoyed singing ‘At Last’ which was one of Etta James’s biggest hits. It has been sung by other vocalists…even men, but none were quite like Etta’s version. So, when I decided to record ‘At Last’ on my first CD five years ago, I discussed it with my guitarist and arranger, Howard T. Levine,  who  suggested  that we change the style and rhythm of it to make it my own. Howard’s arrangement has kind of a Latin flavor to it.”

When Barbara first told me about the new arrangement, I thought it sounded nuts. Then I heard it, and loved it. I also agree that giving it a different spin was the right thing to do out of respect. No one has ever or will ever sing the original arrangement like the great Etta James. (To hear Barbara’s version of this great romantic standard, click here.)

Once Barbara and I had both recovered from our shock, we realized that perhaps the timing of the soundtrack release wasn’t unfortunate after all. To have a fresh recording of Etta James’s signature song go live on the day of her death is actually a testament to the fact that she will live on as an icon to our musical culture.

Farewell, you will be greatly missed, and fondly remembered.

Do you have any special memories of Etta James, her music, or the song “At Last”? Feel free to share as a tribute to one of the greatest female vocalist of all time.

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