Etta James — “Just a Little Bit”: Brace for the Obscure (60s rock)! — June 27, 2022


498) Etta James — “Just a Little Bit”

As Derek Anderson says, “Etta James had one of the most recognizable, charismatic and soulful voices you’ll ever have privilege of hearing.” (see #316) ( Just a year before Robert Plant announced his scheme to give away a whole lotta his love, Etta James asked for just a teeny weeny bit. But Etta didn’t claim anyone else’s lyrics as her own, she simply covered a sweet 50’s R&B chestnut. And by cover, I mean she wrapped the song in so much carnal heat that it single-handedly instigated global warming. Talk about a disco inferno.

Derek Anderson talks about the song and the album:

[Her album] Tell Mama closes with Just A Little Bit . . . . Etta’s sassy vocal . . . about wanting just a little bit of her man’s loving. . . . and the arrangement with rasping horns and the organ . . . merge magnificently, resulting in a track that combines jazz and soul masterfully. . . . Released in August 1968 [it] . . . was . . . [her] first album . . . since 1963 to enter the Billboard 200 reaching number eighty-two. . . . [and] reach[ed] number twenty-one [on the R&B chart and also included] . . . . Etta’s first top ten . . . [R&B chart] single[] since . . . 1963 . . . . [The album was] produced . . . at the Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. This had been Leonard Chess’ idea . . . . Using the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section . . . . Rick Hall had assembled some of the finest musicians available. . . . The result was one of Etta James finest ever albums . . . .

Joseph Washek gives a sense of Etta’s life:

Etta James was in the heartbreak business. Other singers sold sweet dreams of love, romance, and sex, but Etta James sold pain and she had an endless supply. . . . . She never knew who her father was. When she was born, her mother who was fourteen, abandoned her, leaving her with a childless older couple. The woman, called “Mama Lu” by Etta, became her surrogate mother . . . . But . . . . [p]eriodically, her birth mother, Dorothy, who loved the night life, would appear and take the child away. . . . They would live in squalor . . . and then, bored and frustrated with parenthood, Dorothy would return Etta . . . . The pattern continued until Etta was twelve when Mama Lu died. Dorothy . . . took her to San Francisco. . . . [and] . . . left Etta with [Dorothy’s brother] and walked away. . . . Etta was shuttled between her aunt and uncle and her mother . . . . [She] began running with gangs and at fourteen was put in juvenile detention for thirty days. . . . .

Etta . . . had been gifted with extraordinary musical ability . . . . She was a radio Gospel star at the age of seven. She . . . was discovered by Johnny Otis and at sixteen recorded her song “Roll With Me Henry”, which became one of the biggest R&B hits of 1955. She became a star, went on the road with the Johnny Otis Show, and had more hits. . . . [But] she got ripped off by everyone; the record company didn’t pay royalties, Otis put his wife’s name on “Roll With Me Henry” and a white woman, Georgia Gibbs, covered it as “Dance With Me Henry[” and it reached] #1 Pop and sold over a million copies. Etta was singing for $10 a night when she watched Gibbs sing “Dance With Me Henry” on The Ed Sullivan Show.

By 1960, the hits had stopped coming . . . . Leonard Chess . . . was looking for black artists who could “crossover” and sell to the pop audience. He gave Etta a chance and soon she was again one of the biggest stars in Black Music and selling records to white people too. . . . [But s]he began shooting heroin[, t]he records started to sell less well . . . [, s]he started doing crimes for drug money[,] was in and out of jail[ and] in a . . . physically abusive relationship . . . . Leonard Chess [however,] never lost faith in her. . . . In August 1967, she arrived in Muscle Shoals[:] “I had tons of confusion and anger stored up inside…and ready to blow the doors off the studio.” . . . . Obviously, [Tell Mama is] a compilation of attempts to get an AM radio hit, like all R&B LPs were in those [days] . . . . The record shouldn’t be a near masterpiece, but Etta James made it one. She idolized Billie Holiday and learned from her that the deepest sadness and greatest despair could be found in the silliest, most cheerfully inane songs. The pain’s in the singer, not the song.

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Here is Roscoe Gordon’s original version from ‘57:

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