Etta James Tribute

Tavis devotes tonight’s show to the legacy of the three-time Grammy-winning blues matriarch.

Etta James was a soul pioneer who had her share of hard times and emerged a survivor. A three-time Grammy winner and inductee into multiple Halls of Fame, she had a career that spanned five decades, with hits that included "Good Rockin' Daddy" and, her signature classic, "At Last." James was discovered in her mid-teens, and her raw talent influenced the likes of Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt. Backed by her two sons, she maintained a busy touring schedule until just a few years ago, and continued to make her mark as late as last year with her CD "The Dreamer." James recently lost her battle with leukemia.


Tavis: In 2007, Etta James joined us for a conversation we will never forget around here. Following years of personal and performer turmoil, Etta James was back on the top of the world when she joined us, headlining the Playboy Jazz Festival that year and out with a terrific collection of cover songs featuring some of the biggest artists in music history.

[Begin video of previously recorded interview]

Tavis: At last you’ve made it to my program.

Etta James: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: I’m delighted to have you here.

James: You’re right – at last I finally made it to your program.

Tavis: At last. When the people at the Playboy Jazz Festival reached out to me and asked me would I be interested in talking to Etta James, I laughed at them. Would I be interested? I’m so honored to have you here.

James: Well, thank you, because I used to look at you on TV and I would say, “He’s such a great guy,” the way you interview people and all. So I’m not one of those kinds to like to go to all the interviews. There’s just certain people that I like to talk to and I can tell the way they talk to other people how – whether I’d like to be talked to by them.

I’ve often thought about that, and then I didn’t see you anymore and I said, “Oh, Tavis Smiley, I would love to be on his show.” Then all of a sudden I got a telephone call that they said, “Tavis Smiley wants you on his show.” I went, “Ahh.” (Laughter)

Tavis: Neil, make sure I get a copy of that tape, what she just said. I can hold on to that. Anyway, I’m glad – this is going to be a mutual admiration society because we both love each other, and I’m glad to know that.

James: Thank you so much.

Tavis: You are one bold sister. Not that Etta James couldn’t do it, but John Lennon, Prince, Marvin Gaye? You picked some timeless stuff to cover.

James: That’s the stuff you cover.

Tavis: Yeah.

James: Because I love all those singers. Everybody that I usually sing their songs, I love them and I love the stuff that they recorded, say like Marvin. We were all tight, we were all together in the beginning, when he came from the service and stuff and was with the Moonglows, and then we went on the road.

We knew he was going to be a star, because he had that star attitude, but I always used to say, oh, all I want Marvin to do is do a song, and I want to do something that he did. So all of a sudden he started doing it, and I’m just one of those kind of people. Somebody’ll do a great song and then I want to – oh, I want to do that.

Tavis: Tell me what it is – everybody has their own reasons, I’m curious as to what Etta James’s is since you covered it. What is it about that song, “What’s Going On,” that made you want to cover it, of all the stuff that Marvin has done?

James: Because it said what’s going on. I love those kind of stories. So when you say, “What’s going on,” and he’s going to tell you what’s going on, I wanted to know about it and I wanted to sing about it. The thing is, everything that he’s ever done, I’ve wanted to do them.

Tavis: I was in a conversation the other day, and I probably shouldn’t tell you this, given that I’m sitting here talking to Etta James with a classic like “At Last,” but I was asked in a conversation the other day an impossible question. I have these dinner parties at my house and we have these ridiculously stupid conversations with questions that are just unanswerable, but we spend hours philosophizing about these question.

James: Right.

Tavis: The question the other night, one of the questions at the dinner party at my house was what’s the greatest song ever written? The greatest song ever written, and my money went to “What’s Going On.”

James: It did.

Tavis: Because the lyrics of that song are timeless.

James: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: The lyrics to that song that Marvin did are as poignant now –

James: Right.

Tavis: – as they were then.

James: That’s right.

Tavis: God forbid – and unfortunately, I think maybe time this for a few more years to come, but the lyrics to that song is unbelievable.

James: I think that kind of a song will just go on and on. You know, like “Stardust” and songs like that were made back there in the day – that’s what Marvin Gaye did. “Distant Lover,” all of those kind of things.

It’s just saying something that he’s gone now and he’s saying everything that needs to be said now, and he’s not even here to say it but he already said it, and it’s there.

I felt funny when I did it. I said – because I don’t go into a song and say, “Oh, I’m going to go do this song because I think I could do this better.” It’s not coming from that place. It’s just coming from a place that I love that song myself, just like I did “Distant Lover,” and I want to do it because I want to know can I sing that song, since I love it so much.

Tavis: I’m going to come back to that other classic, “At Last,” in just a moment. Before I do that, though, so Prince – what about this track?

James: Oh, man, Prince is something else. Not to make this conversation a little bit long, but I met Prince’s father. I worked in Minneapolis years ago, when I used to go work jazz joints.

I was still blues and soul, but I was kind of like a young jazz singer coming along and we worked at this little jazz club over there, and his dad – I think his dad’s name is Nelson. Don’t quote me. But his dad was a jazz piano player, and I remembered that later on, is that the same Prince that his dad was a jazz piano player and I worked with him?

So from the time I first saw him, he was just so out of the box with me – I’m one of those kind of people that just like everything that’s out. If a monkey’s playing a trombone, I want to see him playing that trombone. (Laughter)

Tavis: I would like to see that my doggone self. (Laughter)

James: I just love him and when I saw him on your show and I said, “Uh-oh,” because he was on there and he sits down so stern and everything, I said, “Uh-oh, Tavis is getting ready to get him.” (Laughter) Then you came off so nice to him and he answered so nicely, I said, “Oh, all right, that guy knows what to say.”

Tavis: Well, he is as smart as he is talented.

James: That’s right.

Tavis: He’s doing a big London tour.

James: Right now?

Tavis: This summer. He’s doing, like, 30 dates in London. I’m going to go check him out this summer in London, I think, after I see you at the Playboy Jazz Festival.

James: Yeah, please.

Tavis: I’m coming to see you first.

James: Okay. (Laughs)

Tavis: One more question, though, on the music. I mentioned John Lennon’s “Imagine.” What about “Imagine” made you want to cover it?

James: Oh, man, because I love the – there I go again. I love the Beatles, and that was a song that is very strange. Imagine (makes noise). It’s got strange melodies in it, and I said, “Ooh, I’d like to sing that song.” I can’t remember whether one of the guys with me said, “I don’t think I would do that if I was you.” A lot of people say things like that, and I say, “Wait a minute, let me try. Let me try to do that.”

John Lennon and the boys and them? All of these people except Prince is so young, but the Beatles and the Stones and all the guys, on and on, from Europe and stuff, I knew them well, they knew me well. I was a rock and roll singer at 15 so they attached themselves to me.

So I always wanted to – just like now, I’m getting ready to do a – matter of fact I’m working on an album now, I just don’t want to tell you what’s on there. But I got something on there that I’m going to dedicate to you.

Tavis: I just want to look in the camera and tell all my friends now if I stop speaking to y’all, you understand why. (Laughter) Etta James dedicating a song to me – I don’t want to hear it. (Laughter) I may just walk past you and not say nothing, because –

James: Oh, no.

Tavis: – Etta James done dedicated a song to me. That’s it.

James: I’m going to do it at the Playboy Festival.

Tavis: (Unintelligible)

James: Yeah. My husband told me. He says, “Well, why don’t you do that for Tavis over there, then?”

Tavis: Oh, Lord, well – all right. (Laughter)

James: I said, “Okay.” I said, “Okay, then.”

Tavis: Well, I ain’t trying to start no mess in your house, now.

James: That’s all right. That’s all right. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah, it’s not that serious.

James: But I just want to get everybody stirred up, and they – “Well, what’s Etta James dedicating something to Tavis for?”

Tavis: Well, I’m going to be there at the – when you dedicated I’m going to be right there in the middle.

James: That’s right. Take a bow, Tavis.

Tavis: I’m going to be right there in the middle – I’m going to be right there in my box seat, watching you. I mentioned earlier this classic song, Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On.”

“At Last” has got to be if not a tie, a 1.5. I wouldn’t even put it in second place. When you talk about a classic song – Chris, my producer, was telling me he went on the Internet the other day to every possible site he could find.

James: Of mine?

Tavis: No, any site about music, period. “At Last” is the first dance song at weddings, bar none.

James: Isn’t that something?

Tavis: It is the most-danced-to first dance song –

James: It is.

Tavis: – at weddings all over the world. Did you know that?

James: Yeah. People come up to me in the airport. “Ain’t you Etta James?” I said, “Yeah.” “Oh, well, could you go – my sister’s getting married and she wants you to come sing, ‘At Last?'” I said, “Where’s your sister at?” (Laughter) I wasn’t going, but I just wanted to know where was she at.

Tavis: Where’s she at. (Laughs)

James: She’s in Anchorage, Alaska.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

James: I’m down in L.A. but I love – “At Last” says everybody’s got – I don’t care how old they are, young or old, they all see me in the market, they see me in Walmart with my grandkids. They go, “Don’t try to mess with my grandma. My grandma is Etta James.” They know about “At Last” and they go, “Doesn’t she sing, ‘At Last.'””

Tavis: Yeah. You stole that song, though.

James: Yeah.

Tavis: There are very – (laughter) you say it unapologetically, huh?

James: Yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: There aren’t very many people, though, who can take a song that’s already there and put their stamp on it in such a way that it becomes your song.

James: I know. I know. That’s so good, because it’s so many people, and women especially, that’ll run and go do that. I remember the time that I went to a club in Denver and Nancy Wilson was singing it in there, and it was some song that she sang that I got up, they said, “Oh, we got Etta James in the house, oh, come on.”

I got up there and had the nerve to sing it. She said, “Oh, oh, oh, oh, wait a minute. Wait a minute here.” (Laughter) “You don’t be doing songs that people do.” I learned that you don’t go in a club and –

Tavis: Nancy was just in this chair about a week ago.

James: She was?

Tavis: Just last week she was here, yeah.

James: Oh, gosh.

Tavis: Yeah.

James: But she was like that, Dinah Washington was like that too.

Tavis: Yeah, don’t sing my song – not while I’m in the house.

James: Dinah Washington said, “Don’t you forget, honey, I’m the queen.”

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs)

James: She said, “Don’t you dare sing my song.” Then later on she told me in the theater that night she says, “Look, let me tell you something, teach you as a young girl – you never get on the stage when an artist is in the house and you dedicate a song.”

See, I was stupid. I dedicated the song to her too. “Now this is for Ms. Dinah Washington,” and blah, blah, blah, and I sang it, and she pitched, okay? I learned that. (Laughter) You don’t do all that. You better just be quiet and be glad they’re doing it. If they do it last in there, I don’t have nothing to say. I just (claps).

Tavis: You look amazing, and we were joking before we came on the air about how comfortable you are crossing your legs, and you were telling me why you’re so comfortable doing that.

James: I’m telling you, because I never thought about that except I used to look at chicks that sit all down and they’re all cool and fine. (Laughter) And I would sit down and I couldn’t do nothing, had my legs all – what’s that fat picture you got over there.

Tavis: We’re trying to make the point here.

James: That’s cool, that’s cool, make the point, this is it.

Tavis: Yeah, we’re trying to make the point.

James: But I said, “The main thing that I want to do – that’s why I got these boots on. Oh, I’ve got nothing but cowboy boots.

Tavis: Yeah.

James: Oh, I’m bad. When I got these boots –

Tavis: Got your legs crossed and showing your boots.

James: Oh, yeah, showing them boots.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs)

James: I think I’m real bad. When I got them on I turn into the boss. (Laughter)

[End video of previously recorded interview]

Tavis: We hope you enjoyed that conversation with Etta James as much as we have over the years. In addition to performing her iconic hit, “At Last,” for us that night, she also recorded a second song for us, a song which we will share with you now for the very first time.

And so here is Etta James and her band with “Sugar on the Floor,” followed by a very special performance of “At Last.”

[Begin musical performance]

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Last modified: January 24, 2012 at 8:04 pm