|The Albert's Hall All-Stars with Etta. |
Left to right-Robert "Omar" Tunnock, John Tilden,
Etta James, moi, Ian Harper, Wayne Mills.
seated in front, Grant Slater and Etta's son Donto,
I'm really touched about Etta's passing. I played with her many times and she used to "hand grenade" or "blow us up" on stage if we screwed up. I only got "hand grenaded" once. She threw it at me behind her back, while singing. Didn't even turn around, but at the end of the song she did and gave me a big smile. It was all very playful. She had the best ears. She could hear a mouse fart on stage. She played more quietly and more slowly than anyone I had ever performed with. She could hear it if you picked the tempo up, even a beat or two. I credit her with teaching me how to play quietly and still groove. Thank God I never got the "Death Stare". I saw it once on stage-aimed at the keyboard player (who shall remain nameless). It was terrifying.
Now this particular keyboard player (one of several that worked with Etta in Toronto) was a brilliant player but he developed quite a problem with cocaine. It really affected his attitude. It was a Friday night. We were supposed to go on at 9:30. People began lining up hours in advance to see Etta, and many of them had already been there for several hours. The room was buzzing with anticipation and excitement. 9:30 goes by and no keyboard player. He finally waltzed in around 10 pm. and his attitude was arrogant and defiant (I call cocaine the asshole drug-it turns everyone but you into an asshole). This was seriously not cool. Etta didn't say a word to him. (You gotta remember that Etta had wrestled with her own drug demons and there was no conning her. She was an expert. She didn't suffer drug addicted fools very well. She liked to have a toke or two of hash before she went on stage. That was about it. Didn't see her drink or ever loose control).We quickly got on stage and got the room rocking. Etta used to do two medleys. One was the "slow" medley and one was the "really slow" medley which included "At Last". We started the "slow" medley. It began with the keys playing slow, open arpeggiated chords that set up the groove. He began playing-eyes closed, thinking he was in the groove, but it was way too fast and definitely NOT in the groove. Etta just sat on her stool and stared at him.
This is when I saw the Death Stare. (Etta told me she could actually stare someone to death. Said she learned it from her grandmother. She called it the Jamaican Death Stare). She glared at him with this absolutely evil, malevolent stare, like a laser beam and said "stop playing!!!" Now this is on stage, in front of a packed house, hanging on Etta's every breath and nuance. The place went silent. "Stop playing!! And do again!! and do it right!!!! It was really heavy. I was truly frightened by that look and was glad it wasn't directed at me. Etta humbled that man in front of everyone. He had it coming. He did it again and he did it right, but he never played with Etta James again.