03/24/13

René Marie Remembers Etta James

Jan. 25, 1938-Jan. 20, 2012

The sound system is an expensive one, the kind that lets you hear every nuance of a singer’s voice: its raspiness and breathiness; its aches, longing and loneliness. And Lawd, ha’ mercy, this woman’s voice reveals an ache in me I didn’t know I had, when she sings those first few lyrics a cappella: “I … want … a …”

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Rene Marie
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Etta James
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“Have mercy,” I think. “What does this woman want? Somebody please give it to her!”

“… Sunday kind of love.”

Etta James.

Within two years of hearing this voice for the first time, I will have left my husband and my religion, quit my day job at the bank, recorded and produced my very first CD and signed to a boutique record label. But for now it is a late Sunday afternoon in 1996. My husband, Braxton, and I are in the home of friends, two ex-hippies with whom we’ve gone door-to-door today, proselytizing with our magazines, books and Bibles.

One half of this couple, Giorgio, loves talking about music and sharing with us his considerable collection of blues and R&B. We are about eight years younger than Gio and his wife, Ria, who smiles to herself warmly, lovingly, listening to him as he pulls from their shelves album after album, unable to stop himself. We are captivated by Gio’s enthusiasm, when he suddenly stops speaking and tenderly holds in his hand something that makes his eyes go misty. Without showing us the album, or telling us her name, he simply says, “You gotta hear this.”

“The kind that lasts past Saturday night …”

Those opening lyrics to “Sunday Kind of Love” puncture something inside me that comes spurting out with frightening force—an augury of things to come. My default personality at this time in my life is docile, compliant and deferential to Braxton’s opinions and preferences. It is considered improper within our fringe religious community for a woman to express her wants relating to pretty much anything. Asking is considered more apropos. Yet here Etta James is boldly and damn-near defiantly stating exactly what she wants—and how she wants it. And in the home of my fellow evangelists, no less!

“I do my Sunday dreaming and all my Sunday scheming every minute, every hour, every day …”

I stare at a spot on the floor about 20 feet in front of me, unable to look at anyone, even Ria, and especially not Braxton. Now I know what my grandmother meant when she used to say you can’t uncrack an egg. The curtain is rent and the damage is done. Etta James done set me free!

Not long afterwards, I purchase a cassette tape with “Sunday Kind of Love” and other tracks (“At Last,” “Tell Mama,” “Misty,” “I’d Rather Go Blind,” “Damn Your Eyes”) on it. I dare not play this music at home—only in my car. When meeting others for our door-to-door ministry, I start leaving home earlier than necessary just so I can recline in my seat and listen to Etta sing for a while before anyone else arrives.

There are other things that will precipitate my eventual departure from my marriage and religion, this way of life I’ve embraced for more than 20 years. But it is hearing Etta James sing with such unabashed honesty and aching—a woman who looked you straight in the eye, who acknowledged her own hunger and dared the listener to sate it—that challenges me to recognize and honor my own needs and goals, state them plainly without apology, and then follow through on attaining them.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that my life’s philosophy is built around the way Etta sang her songs—boldly presented yet nuanced. Precisely stating my needs and wants and being willing to compromise enough to get them while giving others what they want. And having fun the whole damn time.

“I don’t want a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday … I want a Sunday, nothing but a Sunday kind of love.”

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