Etta James has one of the biggest voices,both literally and figuratively among the female blues and soul vocalists of her day. She was also a survivor. As much as many writers tend to literarily paint black artists of her day seem as if they lived within impenetrable emotional armor,Etta survived by being able to an occasional gentle laugh at some of the troubles that marred most of her life. As what could be described as a prime example of the Silent Generation OG figure at Chicago’s famous Chess Records,changes in music over the decades seemed to roll off of her. Not to mention the musicians and producers who helped her creatively reshape herself.
One of the saddest legacies of Etta’s life was the fact that so much of it was marred by periods of substance abuse. First it was heroin throughout the prime of her career. Than an addiction to prescription drugs in her final years. On the other hand,she almost always looked her best and gave her best performances outside of her personal situation. Following a 1970’s spent in and out of rehab, Etta transitioned in the next decade by teaming up with the recently passed New Orleans writer/producer/performer Allen Toussaint for her 1980 album Changes. The album begins with a bang right out of the box with “Mean Mother”.
That snarling,high pitched rhythm guitar wail that introduces many classic funk grooves gets this one going along with a powerful drum kick. Then the percussion accents kick in with thick sustained Clavinet riffing,blocky acoustic piano and the massive deep bass line holding everything up comes into play. On the rapped intro of Etta’s the drums are subordinated to the percussion. On each chorus,her vocals are accompanied by scaling down horns-which call out from the bottom up on the end of each rhythm statement of the song. The opening guitar snarl also takes a similar position on the last couple choruses of the song before it fades right out of earshot.
Etta James made some magnificent uptempo grooves and ballads over the years. The advent of funk in the 70’s seemed almost tailor made for her deep,resonant growl of a voice. This instrument of tough control and sophistication gets all it’s assistance from this song which showcase how funk is often blues played with a raw rhythm attitude instrumentally and a clean sound to top off on. The thickness of this groove is very similar in flavor to Gil Scott-Heron’s “Shut ‘Em Down” of the same vintage-only minus the synthesizer touches. It’s tale of living as “a child of god born to a family black” extends on the ever present soul power she possessed.