Etta James died last week. You can’t have been at as many weddngs as I have without at least once having heard her signature tune At Last. Recorded in the early 60’s, it begins with a lush string pad setting the stage for the emotional release of the first two words. And those two words say it all. She manages – in two words – to release the pent up longing with the deep relief of one who is finally able to relax into the delight of a lifetime love. Her own life was never able to quite own that restful relief. Struggling with addictions, she was in and out of rehab a couple of times – and the hard life chosen shaped every note. Her talent was finally recognized with induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and a couple of Grammy wins in the mid-2000’s. She released her final album just last November.
James was able to get to the heart of a lyric and melody and shape them to make them her own. Her most memorable songs displayed a rich, powerful voice, tinged with the pain of a life lived in longing.
There is something about a singer who can capture the pure tone of a song and make it so fully theirs, that no other version ever sounds quite right. Eva Cassidy, whom I have recently discovered, was another like that. I first heard her in an NPR driveway moment. They played her recording of Danny Boy as thematic filler at the end of an otherwise uneventful interview. The simple purity of her tone, the anguish of what was and would never be again filling every note, made me sit in the car with tears in my eyes until the last note was sung. The silence that followed was profound.
Cassidy rose to local prominence in the mid-90’s through her appearances in Washington DC clubs. Painfully shy, she prefered to appear as part of a duo or group, but as her soaring vocal ability on virtually any style of music was noticed, she was thrust into the lead role more and more often. In mid-1996 she was diagnosed with melanoma and died in November of that year in her mid-30’s, almost unknown except by a loyal following of local fans. Her eclectic style had frustrated studio executives unable to pin her down to a marketable niche, so that, even though she had recorded a number of songs and a life album, she never hit the charts. After she died, however, those recordings contributed to a rise in popularity, first in England and then, finally in America. She has become more well-known since her death than ever she was while alive.
And what sets her apart is the same ability Etta James had to capture a feeling in a melody and lyric and by doing so, make it completely her own. You can hear the pensive melancholy, tinged with deep joy on her signature songs – Autumn Leaves, Over the Rainbow, Wonderful World, Fields of Gold.
I am not sure why I am writing about these two singers of songs – except, perhaps, that I want to live my life in the same way as they sang – taking the melody and lyrics of life and singing a familiar song in a way that is undeniably mine – informed by a deep love for Jesus and gratitude for redeeming, redefining grace. Besides, if our Father knows when the sparrows fall, we ought pay attention when songbirds do.