Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
In 1967, Etta James’s career was in a slump, as the legendary singer faced personal struggles. Looking for a hit and an escape for his struggling singer, away from the temptations of the city, Leonard Chess convinced Etta James to head to the Legendary Fame studios to record with Rick Hall and his Swampers. James’ time at Fame revitalized her career, beginning with the incredible “Tell Mama”
Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles on January 25th 1938. Her childhood was hard – Jame’s mother, Dorothy Hawkins, was only 14 when she had her, and James spent most of her childhood with foster parents. She never knew her father, although she had some speculations about who he might be. The most steadfast influence in her life was a woman she referred to as a “Mama Lu.” James wrote in her autobiography: “I called her mama. She was the woman who wound up raising me while Dorothy ran in and out of my life like a crazy nightmare.”
Mama Lu was the one who began taking James to St. Paul Baptist Church, where the young vocal prodigy began singing at the age of 5. James recalled: “Mama started taking me to the St. Paul Baptist Church on Naomi and Twenty-first when I was still a toddler. I felt like I was born into that church. I loved it. Everyone loved our church. We had one of the biggest, baddest, hippest choirs anywhere, the Echoes of Eden. Our choirmaster, Professor James Hines, was my first and heaviest musical mentor, the cat who taught me to sing.” Very quickly the young James earned a reputation as a child, who could sing with the voice and expression of an adult. She modeled her singing style on the example of Hines. She credited him with teaching her to sing from her gut. She explained that Hines taught her: “Sing like your life depends on it. Well, turns out mine did.”
When James was 12 years old, Dorothy took her to San Francisco. It was here that James formed the doowop group, the Creolettes with Jean and Abysinia Mitchell. The Creolettes would change James’ life as they became popular in the local scene and eventually caught the attention of Johnny Otis. Several stories exist, but James traces the events back to Hank Ballard and Midnighters, who showed up at one of the Creolettes’ gigs, and complimented the group’s performance. Reveling from their attention, James realized she could respond with an answer song – a popular practice of the time – to Ballard’s hit “Work with Me, Annie.” She wrote “Roll With Me, Henry.” James credits her Creolette groupmate, Abysinia Mitchell, for meeting Otis and talking
him into hearing them. But however, it happened, the Creolette’s ended up playing their new song for Otis who then invited the group to travel with him back to LA to record and perform together. Under the wing of Otis, the Creolette’s became The Peaches and Etta James was given her now-iconic moniker.
Otis had Etta James and the Peaches record “Roll With Me, Henry” for Modern Records, and it was an instant hit in 1954. It’s an important track in James’ history, not only because of it became a hit, but because it was also a song that showcased her as a soloist. So that when the Peaches came into the public eye, James’ voice was the star attraction. The song also got the group a touring spot, opening for Little Richard.
After leaving the Peaches, Etta James had a solo hit with “Good Rockin’ Daddy” on Modern, but it was her time on Chess that truly elevated her to star status.
Her 1960 debut album with Chess At Last would not only give the world her signature song – and the album’s title – but also showcased the variety of styles in which James could sing….Rhythm and Blues, Doo-wop, blues, and jazz standards.
At Last kicked off a series of hits over the next several years, but her James’ life was in turmoil. She entered USC County Hospital several times to attempt to recover from substance abuse and even spent time in prison for her struggles with drugs. “Nothing was easy then. My career was building up but my life was falling apart.”
But in 1967, Leonard Chess convinced James to head to Muscle Shoals Alabama to record with the studio’s famed house rhythm section – The Swampers. The studio had recent hits with Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, and the added bonus of helping James escape from her damaging circle of temptations in the city. Swampers bassist David Hood recalled: “The Chess brothers wanted her to record where there was a chance of getting a hit, but also where she would be isolated from a lot of the temptations and distractions that go on in Chicago or New York or somewhere…She was not that much older than any of us, but she seemed older because she had been around. She had been a professional since she was about 14 or 15 years old, working with Johnny Otis and different people in Chicago and California. So she seemed much more worldly than her age.” “Tell Mama” was the track that captured that truth and kicked off the comeback of her career.
“Tell Mama” was written by Clarence Carter, Marcus Daniel and Wilbur Terrell, and recorded at Fame Studios with Rick Hall the year before. Carter’s recording had hit number 23 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart in early 1967. For her version, Etta James changed the gender and brought a new perspective to the song.
“Tell Mama” was produced by Rick Hall who brought in his core Swampers rhythm section of Jimmy Ray Johnson and Albert “Junior” Lowe on guitar, Roger Hawkins on drums, Barry Beckett and Spooner Oldham on keyboards and David Hood on bass. He also brought in a brass section of Gene “Bowlegs” Miller on trumpet, James Mitchell and Aaron Varnell on saxophone, and Floyd Newman on baritone saxophone.
Finding the right arrangement for James version was a bit tricky, in part, because Carter had so recently recorded his version in the same studio and all the Fame studio musicians were familiar with it. Hood told Mojo magazine: “We all knew the song anyway and I started to replicate Tommy Cogbill’s original bass line. I thought it was wonderful but Rick (Hall) said, ‘Don’t do that, play this.’ He showed me what to do with my bass and I thought it was horrible. I argued with him but it was what he wanted. We went with his version.”
Hall and James worked together well. James told Cliff White in 1978: “I just loved working with Rick Hall. Even more than Ralph Bass and them because they would just let me do what the heck I wanted to do but sometimes an artist don’t really need to do You just can’t let them have their way, all the way. Rick Hall would kind of restrict me just like on ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ he’d say, Etta, you don’t need to just squeal and squall – just sing. He’d kind of hold me back a little bit and that would give a little more spice…” Fame studios was also a perfect fit for James at the time, because with the new technology and Hall at the helm, they were able to record James’ powerful high notes with unprecedented clarity.
“Tell Mama” was released in 1968 – the title track for her second album with Cadet Records – a subsidiary of Chess. The song hit number 10 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts and was a crossover hit – peaking at 23 on the Billboard Hot 100. It reinvigorated James’ career and is considered one of her greatest recordings.
Still….James struggled with the song in her lifetime. Perhaps because it is anchored in her memory to such a challenging time in her life. She explained in her memoir: “There are folks who think ‘Tell Mama’ is the Golden Moment of the Golden Age of Soul; they rant and rave about the snappy horn chart and the deep-pocket guitar groove, about how I sang the shit out of it. I wish I could agree. Sure, the song made me money. It warmed Leonard Chess’s heart to see the thing cross over to the pop charts, where it lingered for a long while. You might even say it became a classic. But I have to confess that it was never a favorite of mine. Never liked it. Never liked singing it – not then, not now. I almost never perform it. It’s not that I don’t admire the chart and the songwriter. Clarence Carter… is great. Maybe it’s just that I didn’t like being cast in the role of the
Great Earth Mother, the gal you come to for comfort and easy sex. Nothing was easy back then….”
But such is the power of a song and powerful recording, that it can live outside the life of the artists and the personal associations they have with it. On “Tell Mama” Rick Hall and Fame studios was able to capture an incredible performance by a singular singer.
It may not have ever been James’ favorite song, but it certainly captivated the world, and is an important part of her incredible areer. In 1993, Etta James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001. In addition to her induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, the Recording Academy honored her with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. “Tell Mama” was an important song in bringing the power of soul to a wider audience, all while reminding the public of the incredible vocal prowess of Etta James.
Watch the full video on getting creative with drums below