Etta James appreciation: Simple lyrics took on deeper meaning when sung by Etta James. Her unmatched song styling helped bring West Coast R&B to prominence.
To get a sense of the distance that singer Etta James traveled in her life, and the influence she had on American popular music, head back to a hotel room near the Primalon Ballroom in San Francisco, 1954. The singer Johnny Otis is tired but has agreed to audition a shy 16-year-old named Jamesetta Rogers for his show.
The girl is so nervous that she can't face Otis and sing, recounts George Lipsitz in his Otis biography, “Midnight at the Barrelhouse,” so she retreats to the more acoustically forgiving bathroom and sings from afar. Otis, excited, wants to sign her on the spot but needs parental consent because of her age. The problem? She's never met her father and her mother is in jail. Undeterred, she fakes the call (or forges a signature — Otis and James' recollections differ on the specifics), and the rest, as they say, is history.
Los Angeles music took a double blow this week with Friday's death of James at the age of 73, and, on Tuesday, the passing of Otis, two longtime Southland musicians who helped place the West Coast on the R&B map at a time when much of the hottest rhythm & blues was coming out of the American South.
PHOTOS: Etta James | 1938-2012
The evidence lies in the pair's first single together, “The Wallflower,” a response song, one of many at the time, to a Hank Ballard hit called “Work With Me, Annie.” A thinly veiled sexual come-on, Ballard's version went viral before there was such a term and prompted a string of hits that used the song as a springboard into a musical conversation. James' response takes up Ballard's invite and goes further: “Well I ain't teasin' / You better stop your freezin' / If you want romancin' / You better learn some dancin'.”
Many historians consider “Work With Me Annie” and the string of replies to be the big bang of rock 'n' roll — and a bold invitation for a young African American female singer in 1955. James' explosive voice, coupled with her innocent presence belting out such relatively bawdy lyrics, made for a disconnect that James and Otis took full advantage of.