The great Etta James has died at 73. For those of you who don’t know, Etta James is a singer. I’m sure now many are wondering what a singer has to do with indie authors and writing. Well, I’m glad you asked.
Indie Authors and Etta James
Etta James was an American singer who got her start in San Francisco in the early 1950s. I suspect many of my younger followers don’t know Etta’s music, or you think you don’t. How many have you saw Sister Act, with Whoopie Goldberg? Etta James’ song The Wallflower (also known as Dance With Me, Henry or Roll With Me, Henry is featured in the bar scene). It’s also included in Back To The Future (it’s playing when George first talks to Lorraine). James had early hits with If I Can’t Have You, Spoonful, All I Could Do Was Cry, and My Dearest Darling. She went on to have hits with I Just Want To Make Love To You, A Sunday Kind Of Love, The Fool That I Am, and Don’t Cry Baby and many more. Then James fell out of the music scene for years as she struggled with drug addiction and personal problems. She made a resurgence in the late 1980s and started recording again, releasing many stellar CDs, including Blues To The Bone in 2004. She continued performing until poor health stopped her. She sadly passed away just a day ago (at the time of this writing). Over the course of her career, Etta James won six Grammys, 17 Blues Music Awards, and she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, and The Grammy Hall of Fame.
Indie Authors and At Last
I’m sure those of you that know of Etta James are saying what happened to her signature hit At Last. Believe it or not, that wasn’t a hit at the time of its release, but over time it became James’ signature song (and what a song it is). This song, released in early 1961, did reach #2 on the R&B charts, and #47 on the Billboard Hot 100. At Last was originally recorded by Glenn Miller and his orchestra for the film Orchestra Wives in 1941. The song was more of a hit for Miller than it was for Etta James. At Last has been covered numerous times, but none as successfully as James’ version. At Last has also been featured in many movies and TV shows (Pleasantville and The Simpsons).
Indie Authors – So What Does This Have To Do With Me?
I’m glad you asked. We as indie authors can learn from Etta James and her career.
- Etta James crossed many musical genres with great results.
James’ musical style spanned many genres, including blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul, gospel and jazz. The reason she was so successful (from a purely artistic standpoint) is a combination of talent, ambition, practice, drive and she surrounded herself with people who could help her hone her craft, thus helping her succeed. This is worth taking note of.
- Etta James wasn’t always original, but she was better.
As I noted with the song At Last, it had been done before. But James did it better (way better). If you’re going to do what’s been done before, and you want to be successful (in this case, I mean sell books) you better do it better than the original. As an indie author, if your story is a cliché, or not very original or (fill in the blank), you won’t capture the attention of your readers unless you have done a stellar job with your writing and storytelling.
- Etta James had great talent, but she’s been overlooked.
It’s a personal pet peeve of mine when I hear indie authors claim the cream will rise to the top, meaning the good indie authors will be found and be successful, so it doesn’t matter if so many indie authors put out crap. If your novels are good, you will get discovered (more on this in another post). The analogy is wrong (cream doesn’t always rise to the top) and it should never be an excuse to publish before you know your craft and know your works are professional in every sense of the word (story developed properly, edited professionally and so much more). Many great novelists have not known success because it’s hard to get discovered. Etta James knew about lack of recognition. She was considered one of the most overlooked R&B and blues artists in American music history, until this perception changed in the early 1990s (a full 30 years after she started as a singer). It can take time to get recognized, start selling, and so on. First and foremost, know your craft (as James did). Then persevere, improve, and if this is your passion, don’t give up.
- Etta James continued to excel, even late in her career.
Many artists slip as time goes by. How many of us wish The Rolling Stones had stopped recording a few CDs ago :)? It’s the same with many authors we know – the writing and the stories grow stale. Etta James is a good example of someone who continued to put out great works (like Blues To The Bone), no matter what. She didn’t just churn out songs for the money. We can learn from that.
I love listening to Etta James. I know she wasn’t perfect (how many of us are), but she was a supremely talented singer. I regret that I never saw her perform live, but her music lives on. I am grateful for that. And I also look to her for inspiration, as someone who overcame a lot, worked hard, and achieved great things in her chosen profession. She was blues to the bone.