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The Night I Sang with Etta James

A couple of friends said that somebody asked to jam with him and he should spend the evening at their studio. How was he to know that the someone was Etta James?

By John Calu

It was probably one of the wildest nights of my life and yet surprisingly, I’ve told very few people about it. It’s kind of hard to relive a long evening filled with vices too numerous to mention and challenges that were impossible to overcome even though the learning curve got thrown out the window and my street quotient rose substantially from that night forward.

I was in my late twenties, living in Santa Barbara, when the phone rang after dinner one night. Greg and Regina owned a recording studio in the foothills and they had a surprise guest who wanted to jam with me. If I recall the invitation, it was something along the lines of c’mon over around eleven and don’t even think about sleeping until the sun comes up.

Etta JamesThis was an eclectic and dynamic duo. He was a couple years older than me; a heavy set white guy dressed in suits most of the time; hustling blues, jazz and R & B demos all over L.A. and if memory serves me well, doing some investment brokering to keep the properties paid. She was a voluptuous young black diva with a voice that knocked the hell out of you, but she was also wild, dramatic and demanding. As intimidating as they could be, I really enjoyed their company and frankly I was too afraid of them to turn down a studio request at that point in my life. You never knew what to expect with them and this turned out to be something I’m glad I didn’t miss.

When I got there, they greeted me with great big smiles, shots of hard liquor and lines of cocaine. I had some catching up to do and the guest of honor would be with us shortly. Once we were in the studio, Greg cranked up some rhythm tracks that sounded vaguely familiar, handed me a microphone and told me to start warming up. At best, I was a background singer who could hold my own on the songs I wrote when I couldn’t find other people willing to sing them better, but trust me I was no match for who was about to show up.

I heard a low growl that made me shiver. It was the most sensual sound I’d ever heard; catlike, confident and overwhelming. When I turned around, I was face to face with Etta James who was ready to tear me apart. I have never met anyone in my life sexier, stronger or nastier than that woman. She challenged me to sing and shout every emotion I had within me. She made me howl notes I never knew I could produce. We sweated out verse after bluesy verse, making it up as we went along. We rocked the house, tore off the roof and shook it til’ the break of dawn.

I turned out that her son, Dante, had been in my songwriting workshops and she wanted to see what I was made of. When the session was over, she licked her lips and gave me that famous lascivious smile. “Not bad for a skinny little white boy,” she offered and I’ll take that to my grave as great praise.

–John Calu is a published author with years of experience in arts and entertainment as well as a successful corporate career in office technology sales. Contact him at j2pcalu@gmail.com or through his website. (Photo: Louis Ramirez)

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Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.


What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.


The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.

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