Ky. Voices: Etta James opened door to new music, different world

Etta James performed at the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1990. The legendary blues singer died Jan. 20 at age 73.
Etta James performed at the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1990. The legendary blues singer died Jan. 20 at age 73. MCT

We lost Etta James. And my goodness how that girl could sing.

But there was much more to it all than merely the hard-driving blues singer who seemed able to capture in her songs all our feelings — our fears, our disappointments in love and, yes, our raucous good times — and in my case, at least, made me want to go to a smoky honky tonk on Saturday night and dance too close with a beautiful, troubled woman who would not meet the approval of my mother or the preacher in our little Presbyterian church.

In the early 1960s, a significant portion of society decided that we kids needed protection from the infection of race music. Black music — what was at the time coming to be called Rhythm and Blues — was thought to be a risk to the moral fiber of young white Americans. As a result, we began to see white covers for songs of black artists.

And, good Lord almighty, were they ever white.

The most bizarre of these, certainly, was that Pat Boone lent his Caucasian stylings to covers of Little Richard's early songs.

It was quite amazing to hear Pat, dressed in his button down shirt and his sleeveless cardigan, belting out "Bop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom," those classic lyrics from Little Richard's outrageously wonderful Tutti Frutti. Holy moly, great Caesar's ghost, and all other expletives I can think of.

But there was hope for us who wanted to escape this ridiculous situation. There was a powerful radio station in Nashville — WLAC — which in the hills of Eastern Kentucky could be picked up after dark. The Ernie's Record Mart show came on around 9 p.m., followed by Randy's at around 11, and then, if you were up really late, there was Buckley's. One of the more amazing things was that the DJ's were all white — John R., Big Huge Baby and the rest of them — but they pretended to be black. They were selling exotic products — Silky Straight and White Rose Petroleum Jelly — and offered wonderful record deals where you could get packages of R&B records at deeply discounted prices.

And that's where my friends and I first heard Etta James. In our rooms, late at night with the lights off, glued to every song from this race station 200 miles away. But it wasn't just Etta we heard. It was Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Sam Cooke and many others considered dangerous to the white youth of America.

Is it overly romantic to say that these experiences shaped or at least influenced our racial views in a very positive way? I think it is not. And around the same time, a bit to the west in Tennessee, there was Sun Records and later Stax Records, with — God help us all — white guys and black guys working together to create music that still influences and pleases today.

At Sun Records in Memphis, Sam Phillips, in addition to recording Elvis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee — all of whom were greatly influenced by black R&B — also recorded Rufus Thomas and other black artists.

And a little later at Stax, a couple of young white boys, Donald Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper, joined up with Booker T. Jones, a black musician on the Hammond B3 organ, to become Booker T. and the MGs. They were, of course, the legendary sessions band for the greatest R&B recordings of the period.

Mozart died in 1791. Quick now. Can you name a single European king from that period? Or a single general from a major European power of the time? But yesterday, when I was preparing for a busy work day, I turned my iPod to Mozart's Clarinet Concerto.

So, dear Etta, thank you for the pleasure and comfort you brought me as a teenager in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, listening late at night to WLAC on my little Channel Master radio. You allowed me to escape the pain of white covers and racist strategies foisted on us by white society. But more than that, thank you (and Booker T. and Sam Cooke and Steve Cropper and Carl Perkins) for the inestimatable help you lent us in our early steps toward dealing with our racial bigotries.

God bless your wonderful music.

Rock on, girl.