I’m a little late in this tribute, but a family death, one beloved and too young, like Etta, derailed me, even as we honored this special man today at Algiers United Methodist Church, the church of my childhood, the altar where my parents said “I do,” and the backdrop of a recent murder/car-jacking.
New Orleans suffers under this murder-weight, as people add security and shake their fists. It’s Mardi Gras, and so we make excuses, explaining that it’s not the tourists in danger, but rather the criminals, as they battle each other. Yet there was nothing criminal about the man who died in front of his young sons, at the bus stop, by the church, in the vicinity of Martin Behrman School, named after the longest serving mayor (1904-1920) in New Orleans history, a school my father speaks of fondly as his alma mater.
Without romanticizing the tragedies, I still look at these events and wonder at their contribution to our character.
Consider Etta James. Born in Los Angeles to a 14 year-old mother and an unknown father, she basically raised herself, moving with the wrong crowds, embracing drug addictions, and living, more often than once, in prison.
Yet she sang with the raw and gritty power of those experiences — of spurned love, betrayal, and longing.
Other than “At Last,” I first heard Etta James on a store speaker in Seattle, Washington. It was 1999. George Rodrigue and I were on city number thirty-something of a two-month, fifty-city, nationwide book tour. We took advantage of small escapes, like, having arrived twenty minutes early at the bookstore, perusing the fifties memorabilia at the junk shop one block away.
It was “Time After Time,” playing loudly, as though from the old juke box, that echoes in my memory, much like my mother recalling “Heartbreak Hotel” (the first time she heard Elvis), playing from the family radio as she stepped into a bath. I asked the Walter Matthau-looking man behind the desk,
“What’s that music?”
He handed me James’s latest CD, which I couldn’t buy fast enough. Soon after it was Mystery Lady and, of course, all of the old ones, that filled our music library and our home ever since.
In the mid-2000s, sometime before Hurricane Katrina, Etta James performed in New Orleans at the House of Blues. Despite his reluctance and unfamiliarity, my stepson joined us for the evening. James, it turns out, performed her first concert since having gastric bypass surgery. Apparently, after she kicked the drugs, her weight ballooned, sending her over 400 pounds. Now she stood on stage with a new body, a new attitude, and unprecedented sex appeal.
As this seventy year-old woman gyrated to her words, to the music, the emotion, and the sound of her own voice, I glanced at my blushing, twenty-one year old stepson. He stared, embarrassed. Like me, his dad, and everyone in the place, he was nothing short of turned on. He sang with us as we sang towards her, like she needed to hear it, because we wanted her happiness as much as she did…
“No, no no baby don’t do it
Don’t you do it
Stop the wedding
Oh don’t break two hearts.”
Etta James lives forever in the hearts of music lovers just as Tom McKinney, a dear man celebrated and mourned today at Algiers United Methodist Church, lives in the eyes and memories of his wife, children and grandchildren, and just as Harry “Mike” Ainsworth lives on through his young sons and the wounded community he loved.
Through their sacrifice, whether expressing unreservedly or loving unconditionally, we, hopefully, learn and grow in our humanity.
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)
-Blues for Etta artist Nancy Natale describes her artwork in her blog
-read Etta James's obituary in The Guardian