Saturday, January 21, 2012

If you like Adele, thank Etta James

Legendary blues singer Etta James passed away yesterday at the age of 73 (remarkably just three days after the death of Johnny Otis, the man who first discovered her singing with a girl-group called the Creolettes as a teenager.) Her incredible talent sustained a six-decade-long career and produced one of the biggest blues hits of all time, the inimitable "At Last." Her influence on modern music is probably immeasurable. She laid the groundwork for an entire generation of female R&B artists, and has been immortalized on film by no less than Beyonce in the greatly underappreciated movie, Cadillac Records.

But perhaps no current artist owes a greater creative debt to Etta James than Adele. Adele has had enormous success in the past few years by adhering very closely to the blueprint that Etta James first set down in the 1950s: throaty, impassioned vocals mixed with symphonic blues arrangements.

Take for example, the song "Turning Tables" from her latest album, 21:

Listen to the strings arrangement. The sad, defiant lyrics. The throaty push of her husky vocal tone. (This in particular is pure homage to Etta James, right down to the signature glottal rasp.)

Now compare that to Etta's 1961 hit "Fool That I Am:"

This song is rhythmically smoother than almost any Adele song (it was made for an era when men and women still swayed in each other's arms on dance floors occasionally), but otherwise every element of Adele's interpretation can be traced to this song, and others just like it.

Etta James was unparalleled at channeling raw emotion through her voice, a mantle that Adele has assumed, and which (I would argue) is the key to her success. So if you like Adele, thank Etta James. May she rest in peace.

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