The Story Behind Etta James’s Greatest Song

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 20 2012 5:32 PM

The Story Behind Etta James’s Greatest Song

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Etta James performs in 2009.

Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Etta James, one of the great American pop singers of the last half-century, died this morning. Many of the much deserved tributes to appear so far have singled out her most famous single, the great “At Last,” enormously popular at weddings and famously sung by Beyoncé to Barack and Michelle Obama upon his inauguration as president (possibly still, somewhat regrettably, my favorite moment from the entire Obama presidency). The New York Times went so far as to describe James as the “Powerful Voice Behind ‘At Last’” in the headline of the paper’s obituary.

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

But Etta James was no one-hit wonder. In fact, as truly great as that song is, James recorded another that was even better—and it’s one she co-wrote, although, for tax reasons, she gave songwriting credit to her then boyfriend. (“It bugs me to this day that he still receives royalties,” James wrote in 1995.)

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“I’d Rather Go Blind” (also, as it happens, sung by Beyoncé, when she played Etta James in the film Cadillac Records) was reportedly begun by Ellington “Fugi” Jordan, a friend of James’s, when he was in Chino Prison for robbery, and then completed by James later.

Describing the song in her autobiography, James wrote, “I was blind. I was blind in my love life, and I was blind in my personal ways. Like the song says, ‘I just don’t want to be free.’” When Leonard Chess—the founder of James’s label, Chess Records—first heard the song, James says, “he got up and left the room ’cause he started crying… When he came back in the room, he said, ‘Etta, it’s a mother … it’s a mother.”

So it is. And listening to it today seems a fitting, if inadequate, tribute to Etta James.

It’s also an opportunity to mention her friend and co-writer, the far less famous Ellington “Fugi” Jordan. (You can hear his own, more psychedelic take on the song, called “I’d Rather Be a Blind Man,” on YouTube.) Described as a “soul enigma” by MOJO magazine in 2002, Jordan has had a fascinating musical career of his own. He helped sign (and then performed with) Black Merda, a Detroit outfit that has been described as “the first all black rock band,” and which has built a cult following during the last decade. And he continues to record, it seems; here is his fledgling Facebook page.

So here’s to both Jordan and James, and to the great song they wrote together.