Here’s proof that the late Etta James was a vocalist of incomparable feel and range: For the Second Annual Etta James Revue, her longtime guitarist Bobby Murray will use four different singers to replicate her vocals.
“She covered so many idioms, she did rock and roll — she opened for the Stones — she could sing jazz, pop, and loved all kinds of music,” Murray said last week. “We’re trying to cover all the different eras. We aren’t doing ‘Roll With Me, Henry’ (from 1955), but we cover the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and the remainder of her career.”
Murray, who lives in northern Oakland County, played guitar for James for 25 years, before her death at age 73 in 2012. Murray was onstage with James when she last played Detroit, a May 2009 gig at the MotorCity Casino.
He first presented a tribute to his longtime boss in October 2016 at Callahan’s. “It sold out so quickly, we did another one three months later, in January, Etta’s birthday month,” Murray noted. So now the Etta tribute will be an annual January event.
Murray and a 13-piece band, including the Woodward Horns, will accompany singers Kiara LeChe, Tosha Owens, Lenny Watkins and Jay Jolley.
Many of the songs they’ll perform, including James’ well-known pop classic “At Last” and her R&B hit “All I Could Do Was Cry.” But other selections, such as “I’ll Take Care of You” by Bobby “Blue” Bland and “Don’t Let My Baby Ride” by O.V. Wright, also became a vital part of James’ live set over the years.
James was a vocalist of great power and emotion, one of the best blues singers of her generation, but she also had a sly, subtle way with a lyric. Pulling from 25 years of memories from the road, Murray recalls James telling him about a somewhat surprising vocal inspiration: the wildly funky Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
“He didn’t have the operatic (singing) chops that Etta had, but she got a lot of her phrasing from him,” Murray said. “Some of their phrasing is so close, it’s kind of scary.”
Watkins, who often performs with Murray’s band, is a Watson buff who will show off that part of Etta’s style Saturday night.
James was also a fan of Detroit’s own Little Willie John (“She had photos of herself with him all over the place,”) with whom she toured as a teenager, as well as Jackie Wilson.
She was born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938 to a teenage mother in Los Angeles. Etta’s father was rumored to be the famous pool player Minnesota Fats, a possibility the singer acknowledged.
James first came to notice for her racy “Roll With Me, Henry” in 1955, which later became “The Wallflower.”. Later, in 1960, she signed with the R&B powerhouse Chess Records in Chicago.
She spoke highly of the Chess brothers, Murray reports, and that can’t be said for all of their artists.
“ ‘They were certainly good to me,’ Etta would say,” Murray said. “At one point, she was having financial problems, it was maybe in one of the darker chapters of her life, when she was involved with drugs and stuff. She thought she would lose her house, but Leonard (Chess) paid it off. He told her, ‘Don’t worry about it, I took care of it.’ ”
What does Murray miss most about Etta? “Her laugh. And she had a wonderful sense of sarcasm, in the cutest way at times, at other times not the cutest way,” the guitarist said, laughing.
Murray’s favorite part of touring was hearing James tell stories at the front of the bus.
“She had the ability to make the stories come to life. Like, she loved Jackie Wilson, and it was just so funny, she would say things like, ‘I really dug Jackie. Jackie dug Jackie too — he used to play his own records!’ ”
Then there was the time Wilson came to James’ defense — physically. “There was a man Etta was involved with. She wouldn’t name him in her book. He put her in the hospital once, just a nasty guy, very abusive. Well, she told us he came over once when she was sick and Jackie was taking care of her. When Jackie’s valet answered the door, he knocked him out. But Jackie was pretty handy with his fists, he was a Golden Globes boxer — Jackie took care of him.”
Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to The Detroit News. Contact her at susanwhitall.com
Bobby Murray’s 2nd Annual Etta James Tribute
Featuring: Bobby Murray (guitar), Dale Grisa (musical director/keyboards), Renell Gonsalves (drums), Dave Uricek (bass and vocals) and Kris Kurzawa (guitar), the Woodward Horns, and Kiara LeChe , Tosha Owens, Lenny Watkins and Jay Jolley (vocals).
Callahan’s Bar and Grille, Auburn Hills.
When: Sat.; Doors at 6:30 p.m.; Show 8 p.m.