by Randy Fox
The songs and performances that James delivered those two nights were like a cross-section of the state of R&B at the time — from the juke-joint blues of “Baby, Any Way You Want Me to Do,” to the smokin’ rock ’n’ roll of “Money (That’s What I Want),” on through the rollicking soul shouting of “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” and the heartbreak-soul balladry of “All I Could Do Was Cry.” Throughout the recordings James was backed by a crack band led by famed guitarist David T. Walker. The energy that James and the band poured into their performances was reflected by the rowdy crowd that can be heard shouting and applauding throughout the recordings.
Beginning her career in 1955, James scored a No. 1 R&B hit with her first single “The Wallflower” and soon found herself touring with many top R&B and rock ’n’ roll stars of the day. Later that same year, “Good Rockin’ Daddy” became her second Top 10 hit. Although her future looked bright, she soon found it difficult to follow up her successes. She continued to record great material for Modern Records, but none of it caught fire on the charts.
In late 1959, James signed with Argo, a subsidiary label of the renowned Chicago-based Chess Records. Working with producer Bass, James developed a new style that combined the earthiness of R&B with the lush arrangements of contemporary pop. At her first recording session for Argo in January 1960, she cut the heartbreak soul ballad “All I Could Do Was Cry” in this new style. Barely 22 years old, James already knew how to channel the chaos and strife of her life into her singing, and she delivered an astounding performance. The song became an instant soul classic, a No. 2 R&B hit and a No. 15 pop hit.
Over the next four years, James continued to produce hit after hit with her new, sophisticated crossover style. In many ways, the records James and Bass were producing in Chicago were the soul-sister equivalents of the country heartbreak epics that Patsy Cline and Owen Bradley were crafting on Music Row in Nashville. Both women were masters of the “rowdier” styles in their respective genres (juke-joint blues for James and rollicking honky-tonk for Cline), but they also had the pipes and talent to fuse their styles with contemporary pop into hybrids that lost nothing in the mergers.
Even though many of James’ hits from this period feature lush orchestral arrangements, when it came to live performances she still got down in the trenches with gut-bucket blues or intense rockin’ soul music. When Argo made the decision to record a live album, they let her choose the location. They needed a venue where James felt comfortable and one where the audience response would match the passion of her music. She chose Nashville and the New Era Club.
Etta James Rocks the House was released in 1964. On its initial release, it barely scraped the Billboard album chart, making it to just No. 96. But over the next 50 years, its reputation would grow, and the force of James’ performance has endured in what many consider one of the greatest live blues and R&B recordings in history. But behind the triumphs of James’ music was a darker side. On the cover of the album a bandage is plainly visible on her wrist. It masked the physical marks of a heroin addiction that soon brought devastation to her life and career.
In 1964, the hits slowed, and James stopped recording as her personal life became a swirl of chaos and addictions. After almost two years away from the music business, she pulled herself together to return to recording and began racking up a run of hit soul singles that continued into the early 1970s. Over the years, she continued to struggle with her demons, disappearing from the music scene repeatedly, only to come roaring back time and again. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame, and eventually earned the nickname “Matriarch of the Blues.” She often spoke of her fondness for Nashville, and in 2003 fulfilled a longtime dream when she appeared as a guest on the Grand Ole Opry. Despite health problems in her later years, she continued to perform. In January 2011, she was diagnosed with leukemia, and she died on Jan. 20, 2012, just five days before her 74th birthday.
Fifty years after that night of blistering blues and rock at the New Era Club, the site is an empty lot. The building that once housed Nashville’s hottest R&B club has been swept away, and no signs remain of the stage or walls that once reverberated with James’ singing. But the music is still with us, locked forever in the grooves of her recordings. It serves as a sonic time machine, transporting the listener back through five decades to a warm autumn evening, and a sweltering nightclub where Miss Etta James gave her all.