There aren’t many. Perhaps seven or eight soul tunes better than “Tell Momma.”
Etta James leaves behind a soul tune that scorches and taunts, coaxes and cajoles and soars across a bass line from David Hood that is so intricate and precise it may as well be solving binomial equations.
Those five staccato trumpet notes that kept blasting from Gene Bowlegs Miller, who was 54 years old when “Tell Momma” was cut, they captured everything we need to know about soul. Out of Memphis and off of Beale Street, Miller had played on records by Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. Nobody knows his name, but we all know his sound.
Co-written by Clarence Carter and recorded at the old Flame Studios in Florence, Alabama in late 1967, “Tell Momma” might not be the song Etta James is best remembered for. It may not be her purest work, and it certainly doesn’t have the best title.
That prize goes to her 1962 hit, ‘Stop the Wedding.”
But nothing could have Stopped Etta James that day in Florence, Alabama. Surrounded by a remarkable group of musicians, she took everything she knew about the blues, gospel and jazz and sank it deep into the rigid structure of a two and half minute soul tune that was never played on the radio as much as it should have been.
Jamesetta Hawkins, born in Los Angeles on January 25th, 1938, the day the Northern Lights raged out of control and painted the skies like they hadn’t been painted in centuries, even the skies over Los Angeles, we know how much you suffered but we also know how you kept pushing on, standing back up only to fall back down, and some of us are saddened that you never quite arrived at the place where the people who talk about Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald are also talking about you, even though they should be.