Unfortunately, I’ve just learned of the passing of the incredible “Miss Peaches,” Etta James. Just five days shy of her birthday, Etta died this morning due to complications from leukemia at the age of 73. James had been diagnosed with leukemia in March 2010 (The Daily Mirror, 2011). Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles to a mother with only 14 years of age, Etta was discovered and given her stage name by bandleader Johnny Otis (who, sadly passed away three days ago). With a clever twist, Otis simply reversed her first name from Jamesetta to Etta James.
Signing with Chess Records in 1960, Etta recorded the song most popularly associated with her, the stunning ballad “At Last,” in 1961. Although considered one of the all-time-great singers of R&B ballads, before saying farewell I’d like to celebrate her with a bit of gritty merriment. Recorded in 1966 for the Chess imprint, Cadet Records, here’s Etta James’ duet with childhood-friend and inexplicably underappreciated, pint-sized red-hot mama, Sugar Pie DeSanto: “In The Basement.”
Like it? Buy it.
Born Umpeylia Marsema Balinton, on October 16, 1935, in Brooklyn, New York to a Filipino father and an African-American mother, “Peliya,” (as her parents called her) was raised in San Francisco from the age of 4 (NPR, 2010). Sugar Pie was likewise given her stage name by Johnny Otis (I guess he just really had a knack for it). Known for using “cuss words that hadn’t even been invented yet” (Williamson, 2008), as well as incorporating acrobatic back-flips and dance-steps on stage, Sugar Pie DeSanto never let her 4’11” frame hinder her razor-sharp delivery. As she belts out in her sassy blues number “Use What You Got”: “if you know how to use what you got it don’t matter about your size.”
While trading lines, both James and DeSanto deliver such an abundance of sugar and spice to this soul-club, hand-clapper track that this basement seems to be hosting the best time there ever was to be had; a party where anything goes, and no one will ever know:
Oh, now tell me where can you party, child, all night long?
In the basement, down in the basement, yeah.
Oh where can you go when your money gets low?
In the basement, down in the basement.
And if a storm is taking place, you can jam and still be safe
In the basement, down in the basement, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Not to be upstaged by anyone, here’s Etta James’ heartbreaking “All I Could Do Was Cry.” Released as a single in 1960 and featured on her debut album At Last!, a year later, “All I Could Do Was Cry” apparently was inspired by the real life ramshackle love-quadrangle involving Etta James, her ex Harvey Fuqua, and songwriters Billy Davis and Gwen Gordy. The anguish is palpable on this one.
———————–———————(Click To Listen)
Like it? Buy it.
Well, here’s to you Etta! I’m sure you’re having a good time right now in the basement of heaven.
The Daily Mirror. (2012, January 20). Etta James dead: blues singer loses battle with leukaemia aged 73. The Daily Mirror. Retrieved January 20th, 2012 from http://www.mirror.co.uk/celebs/news/2012/01/20/etta-james-dead-blues-singer-loses-battle-with-leukaemia-aged-73-115875-23709593/
Davis, B., Gordy, B., & Gordy, G. (1960). All I Could Do Was Cry [recorded by Etta James] On At Last! [CD] Argo Records. (1961)
Davis, Minor, & Smith. (1966). In the Basement (Part 1) [recorded by Etta James & Sugar Pie DeSanto] On In the Basement (Part 1) Single [Vinyl] Cadet. (1966)
Ward, E. (2010). Sugar Pie DeSanto: After 50 Years, ‘Go Going’ Strong. NPR. Retrieved January 20th, 2012 from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128845529
Williamson, N. (2008). The Rough Guide To The Best Music You’ve Never Heard. New York: Penguin.