When Etta James had her way with me

The year was 1984. My wife Catherine and I were living in Lancaster, CA, a small, blazingly hot town on the western edge of the Mojave Desert, where she and I had moved to help care for her sick mother.

Here’s pretty much exactly how I will always remember Lancaster—especially since this is right where we lived:

I understand it’s now much grown, but during the time we were there, kids in Lancaster dreamed of making it in—or just to—Bakersfield, some seventy miles to the north.

This is an excellent shot of Bakersfield:

huge parts of which also look like this:

Here is the Bakersfield airport:

The point being: Bakersfield is a “big city” like a piece of fried corn-dog coating is filet mignon. (And I know of what I speak: after Lancaster Cat and I lived in Bakersfield for nine years. Whoo-hoo! We lived the dream!)

Anyway, back to Lancaster in 1984. Cat and I were at the annual Lancaster County Fair. To give you some idea what that was like, many of the fair “displays” were just stuff people had dragged out from their garages, barns, and repair shops, and simply dumped onto the fairground grass. You were just supposed to walk around and look at piles of old farming tools, vacuum cleaners, water heaters, broken lawn furniture. Dilapidated refrigerators. Ancient bicycles with no wheels. Shoes. Frayed bits of rope.

What made it fancy was that the assorted piles were located on ground that was in the shade. That’s why I stayed looking at the stuff: shade! Lancaster is the deserteriest of desert towns: over 100 degrees for weeks on end was typical. A nice, cool summer night in Lancaster is 80 degrees.

At the fair were also things like pigs and goats; Lancaster was a very 4-H kind of place. (To be clear: I love 4-H.) There were a bunch of live chickens stacked in wire boxes that you were supposed to look at. Baked goods were also on display, sort of: in a Quonest hut a bunch of card tables stood holding Hostess Cupcakes with whipped cream sprayed on top of them. Twinkees decorated with bows. Ding-Dongs carefully arranged on paper plates. I remember there was a cherry pie that looked like it might have been good once.

I’m being obnoxious about it, but the truth is I loved the Lancaster County Fair. I’m a complete freak for county fairs. If I go to heaven, and it turns out to be nothing but small town county fairs, I am going to be one extremely thrilled after-lifer.

Anyway, guess who was playing at that year’s Lancaster County fair?

Etta James!

Poor thing. What at that point had happened to her career? Did her agent hate her? I have no idea, of course. But I do know that when she walked out onto the stage in the cavernous main auditorium of the Lancaster County Fair that year, my wife and I were sitting smack in the center of the front row.

Our seats were not difficult to obtain. In the entire auditorium there were only fourteen other people sitting in the ocean of metal fold-out chairs. I know because I counted each of them. I wanted to make sure that I never forget the time that I saw Etta James perform at a hick county fair before a total of sixteen people.

It was at the end of a long, hot day. The other audience members were mostly kids who had spent that day working at the fair: they were all wearing or holding food-crusted aprons, and looked positively exhausted.

Etta was then very heavy: when she came out, it was clear how much her body had become her enemy. She was about as overweight and out of shape as a person can be; I remember being afraid her legs would fail her. She held herself in a strange, bent sort of posture, as if, knowing her body would at any moment collapse, she wanted to at least lessen the distance it fell.

There were no stage lights, or anything like that: the huge fluorescent light fixtures hanging from the ceiling bathed us all in the same pale, greenish-yellow light.

It was the gig from hell, basically.

Etta came out, looked out as us, scowled a bit, turned to her four-person band, and signaled them to start.

She started singing. She wasn’t exactly into it. It was just another show.

It wasn’t to Cat and I, though. This was Etta fucking James.

Cat and I don’t do a lot of things well, but we know how to let musicians and singers know that we appreciate them. So—what with our being right in front of her, and all—we started in letting Etta know that we knew who she was, that we were delirious to be listening to her, and that she sounded every bit as great as we knew she would.

And then the change came over her. She started to go deep inside herself. I don’t know if it was Cat and me cheering her on, or the heat, or the despair of having to do that gig, or what. But, right there in front of all sixteen of us, Etta James became Etta James. She sunk into a place so blue it was pitch black—and then came back up with it, roaring, crying, wailing, singing it into all the sweet, terrible pain this world can bring.

The guys in her band looked around at each other, nodded, and ratcheted their business up. Things had just gotten real, and they weren’t about to let the smokin’ Etta James train pull out without them.

Etta laid into her singing, hard—and stayed right there, at the most painful, real place on earth. She didn’t just deliver it. She knocked on your door, came into your house, dragged you up into your bedroom, and worked you with it. This was more than a woman singing. This was more than the blues. This was a woman who had become the very heart and soul of everything that the blues ever could or would be.

Cat and I turned to each other with our mouths hanging open. The kids beside and behind us were in paroxysms of joy.

It was the kind of moment you have maybe once in your life. Maybe twice, if you pay attention. Maybe never.

And that moment lasted, for all of us, for fifty of the most solid minutes there ever were.

There was a three-year period of my life when I made my living as a music journalist. I’ve seen a lot of live music. In my whole life I’ve never seen a performer do what Etta James did that day.

Rest in peace, Etta James.

Thank you.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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  • Scott Equality Bell via Facebook

    Damn. Where is the *LOVE!* button when I need it?

  • I had no idea you’d done time in this area too. I live in Bakersfield, and I really think you could’ve picked some better shots, like the one up here.

  • Carl Johnson via Facebook

    Thanks, John. Perfect column. You made me feel ike I was right there with you….and I wish I had been.

  • Kristi

    What an amazing hour in your life, John, courtesy of an amazing lady.

    That’s a fine tribute you’ve paid her here.

  • Michelle Schott via Facebook

    Thank you, John!!!

  • Jeff Blackshear via Facebook


    Yep…WOW. 🙂

  • I’ve played that kind of gig, John. But, I know I never laid it out there like Etta did for you and Cat! Thanks for writing this!! I’m still cryin’ and really glad about it!!

  • Thank you, Rev. Randy.

  • I’ve not seen pictures that I think better reflect Bakersfield. But if you have, send ’em on!

  • Your recollection gave me goosebumps.

    There is talent, and then there is something beyond that, something only a handful of performers can call upon. Etta James had The Gift.

  • Tom Blegen via Facebook

    “Etta bleeping James”!!!

  • Ken

    Yeah, Etta knew the blues. She walked the darkest moments, all the addictions she knew were trying to kill her, but she never let anything overcome her. Somehow she mined it all, working it like nobody else. And in the wilderness you and Cat gave her a great gift, and Etta, bless her soul, returned it a thousand-fold.

    That’s the mazing thing about gifts of the spirit: They cost nothing and keep on giving. Thank you.

  • Blind Boy Belvedere

    Ahhh, Etta James. We’ll miss her.

    John, I read this thinking, “This ups the man’s cred with me even more. He digs Etta James!”

  • mike moore

    Incredible. You saw Etta James when she was, by all accounts, was about as low as one can go. Not recording. Addiction. Husband in or just out of jail. She owned the blues.

    Fitzgerald wrote, “there are no second acts in American lives.”

    I love that, in essence, Etta James flipped him the bird and said, “just wait and see.”

  • Dianne M

    I must say the greatest gift a songwriter, musician or singer can be given is an audience that does exactly what you did. Wow, what an incredible night that must have been. Music …what an awesome God we serve that knew we would need more than the spoken word.

  • Will

    Etta James, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin and millions more, lost and struggling.

    34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

    37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

    40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

    Matthew 25:34-40 (New International Version)

  • excellent story, john! i wish i could’ve had the privillage to have seen, etta james. she will be missed, but her music lives on!

  • Diana A.

    This one made me laugh and cry–and I’m not even terribly into Etta James (or blues in general, for that matter.) Thank you, John!

  • Wow! Great, great story! Thanks for sharing it.

  • Calvin

    Great tribute to the great Etta James! John, thank you and Cat for cheering her on!

    Posted to FB.

  • Susan

    Click on my name in my first post.

  • I know whereof you speak. My husband and I were sent to the Palmdale/Lancaster area for six months in 1979. We had a cheap apartment with no AC. You mentioned the heat, but you forgot to mention that wind! Or how, if you laid a slice of bread down for five minutes, it felt toasted when you came back, the air was so dry. Did you ever have Barone’s pizza? We still swoon over it. Was the sailboat-being built still there on that block? My young daughter loved the playground with the Cinderella coach. But darn, I missed the county fair, and I missed Etta James. Thanks for sharing that experience. I felt it today.

  • Such a beautiful story. Brings tears to my eyes!

  • Wonderful story, John! Thanks for sharing.

  • Dave McGee via Facebook

    Wow, what I would have given to have been there. Thanks so much for sharing this John.

  • Marlin

    One of your photos reminded me of Bakersfield P. D. I hope you’ve had a chance to see it. If not, I recommend keeping an eye out for it. The Bakersfield jokes are not its only appeal, but they are quite funny.

  • Wow!! What an awesome tribute to her! I bet I’d have cried if I experienced the kind of moments you describe. I’m glad you guys got to have that with her.

  • Donald Rappe

    I suppose communication between the artist and the audience is at the heart of jazz.

  • Perfect song. I’ve been to Lancaster. Yeah. Heart and soul… She made us feel it.

  • Moreyn Kamenir via Facebook

    That’s who Janis Joplin listened to as a youngster.

  • paula

    Well this made my day, and I wasn’t even there.

  • John Lash via Facebook

    I truly enjoyed this piece John.

  • Erin

    I also live in Bakersfield and we’ve grown quite a bit since then! Bakersfield sign has moved and airport has grown!

  • Lisa Bowen Wilson via Facebook

    I saw Etta James years ago at the Hollywood Bowl. She was fantastic! RIP.. I’ve also had those transcendent musical experiences, both as an audience member and a performer. Ain’t nothin’ else like it. Well… Almost.

  • Mindy

    The real blues – proof positive of God holding up those who know pain. Love this recollection, John – just beautiful!

  • I love that you and Cat showed your love for her artistry. She got a bad rap for being mean, but the truth is she was the epitome of a woman who knew the blues! I’m slightly jealous, beause you a right that was a once in a lifetime moment. RIP Ms. James…

  • textjunkie

    Wow. You brought tears to my eyes and I don’t even like the blues. 😉 RIP Etta James.

  • Bless your hearts for reaching out to her, and bless Etta James for being the brave woman she was! What a talent!

  • Richard Hershberger

    Without disputing your actual point about Etta James, I am going to be a fact-checking weenie.

    There is no such thing as a Lancaster County Fair in California for the simple reason that there is no such thing as Lancaster County, California. There are Lancaster counties in Pennsylvania and Nebraska, and perhaps more states besides, but Lancaster, California is in Los Angeles County. My guess is that you were at the Antelope Valley Fair. I don’t know for sure that it goes back to the 1980s, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

    The temperature doesn’t go over 100 degrees “for weeks on end”. The average summertime high is 95 degrees. (And yes, I’m going to say it: it is a dry heat.) Summer nights in the desert are glorious: comfortable shirt sleeve temperatures with absolutely clear skies until about midnight or one in the morning, when the ground has radiated its heat and the temperature drops (though the sky gazing gets even better).

    These are just nit picks, and if they were all I had I wouldn’t have said anything. But I draw the line at this: “Lancaster is the deserteriest of desert towns” Huh? As a former resident of both Barstow and Twentynine Palms, I call shenanigans. And there are lots of places that consider Barstow and Twentynine Palms where you drive to go shopping. Even been to Baker? I mean other than to pee while on your way to Vegas. I also used to regularly drive through a place accurately named Desert Center. And this is far from the worst you can do. Every place named here so far is in the high desert. For real hellishness, you go to the low desert.

  • Sheesh. In Lancaster, everyone calls it the Lancaster County Fair–since it’s in Lancaster. But you’re right, officially it’s the Antelope Valley Fair. I just didn’t want to take the time to explain that discrepancy. (And yes, the fair goes back to the 80’s. Do you actually imagine I’m dense enough to just make stuff up when I write?) And I can’t bother arguing 25 yr. old weather stats. Or the difference between creative writing and reporting facts. Dang, dude. Maybe you need a new hobby?

  • DR

    I’d take the “fact checking” out.

  • Richard Hershberger

    Ah, I see the source of my confusion. I didn’t realize that this is “creative writing” and therefore need not be true. My bad.

  • Andrew Raymond

    I can’t say I actually had a hand in this one, but I have seen a similar kind of transformation in a performer.

    I used to attend the Dallas Wind Symphony, of whom Dr. Frederick Fennell was the ‘permanent guest conductor’ who would come down once a year and conduct. Dr. Fennell is one of the true legends of wind band and marching pageantry. However, at the time he was in his early 80’s.

    He would literally totter out of the wings to take the podium. My first thought the first time I saw him in 1995 was that he couldn’t possibly have many years left. But when he took the podium… Wow. Simply wow. Take the combined energy of Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy and Zubin Mehta, add them all together and you MIGHT be close. It lasted the entire concert, and then he tottered off into the wings again. He was a remarkable man.

  • When Etta was ON there was nobody better! She could make the hair stand up on your arms. I saw her at least a dozen times and she made me cry EVERY time. She was MAGICAL. No need to fact check those facts! Thanks for the nice piece in memory of my hero.

  • Michelle P.

    Oh my. Just reading this gave me goosebumps. Honest to God, actual, literal goosebumps and brought tears to my eyes. Thank you. This is beautiful.

  • Amy Marie Scott-Zerr

    Thank you for posting this! I love Etta. What a gorgeous woman and radiant soul…We have lost a godess and black revolutionary.

    She writes about Lancaster in her autobiography, *Rage to Survive* (1995):

    “I had my hands filled with Billy Foster. For a while we tried to live the country life out at his aunt’s place in Lancaster. I was driving a pickup and staying clean, trying to keep my head clear. I liked the fresh air. Getting away from the city did me a world of good. Besides, Uncle Nick and Aunt Katherine–we called her Kit Kat–were good folks. Sometimes I’d escape out there to kick.” (Etta and Ritz, p. 165)

    Mr. Shore, I appreciate that you have so carefully garned those photos of the spare desert landscape near Lancaster. I think she held the Golden State near and dear to her heart and that its rural environs offered her an almost spiritual consolation. After describing her experience spending four months in Cook County Jail for using drugs and writing bad checks, she writes:

    “[B]y the time I got out, I was sick of Chicago and New York City. Those towns had been nothing but trouble. I was weary of the nightlife and burnt out on icy winters. I was ready for sunshine. I wanted to go home.” (ibid., p. 148)

    On moving to Riverside, she writes:

    “I took a cue from the old song and moved to the outskirts of town. Fact is, I kept the Fort, but moved out of South Central down the freeway some sixty miles to Riverside and a suburban home in the hills. After a life of ripping and running, the burbs didn’t bother me. We bought a ranchette with a little land in the back, a swimming pool, room for the dogs to run around, and a pool table in the middle of the house, as if I expected my father to drop by for a quick game. You can sit in the den and watch the sun set on the mountains, turning everything gold, and not worry about a damn thing.” (ibid., p. 255)

    James, Etta and David Ritz. New York: Villard Books, 1995.

    Thank you John Shore for your fabulous vignette on hearing Etta perform. I only wish that others would do the same. It would be great to have an oral history of live performances by great artists. You never know when opportunity knocks. I wish I had seized the opportunity to see Etta when she came to the Seattle Paramount Theatre in 2009. I also wish I had seen Cher when she came on her Living Proof tour to Yakima, WA. Over the past few years, I have seen a plethora of wonderful live performances at the Rhythm & Blues Festival in Winthrop, WA, including those by Mavis Staples, John Lee Hooker Jr. and Eric Burdon. Nonething can move my heart like the blues.

    No one could ever replace our superfly Etta James. She fought for black people against segregation and racist oppression. She fought for gays and lesbians. She fought for women. She fought for those criminalized for the tragedy of addiction. She fought for the incarcerated. She fought against all the ills of our macabre capitalist society. She knew the struggling masses and she fought for them with all her might. Etta is forever. xox