Etta James lived quite a life; some incredible highs and heartbreaking lows throughout her 73 years. From hit songs to heroin addiction, from critical acclaim to violence and bad behavior & jail time, Etta experienced it all. And you could hear every bit of that experience in her voice. I’ve wanted to feature Etta on this podcast for a while; the easy choice would be to pick one of her early classic songs… but instead, let’s listen to an overlooked track from late in her career, when she might have been “past her prime” but more than capable of delivering a heart-wrenching performance.  

“Love’s Been Rough On Me” (Gretchen Peters) Copyright Sony/ATV Tunes LLC dba Cross Keys Publishing/Purple Crayon Music (ASCAP)

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Welcome back to the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast. Thanks for joining me here on the Pantheon Podcast network. I’m your host, Brad Page, and each episode of this show I pick one of my favorite songs and we explore it together, discovering what makes it a great song.

This episode happens to come out just in time for Valentine’s Day. And as I mentioned on this show before, I am not a fan of these holidays that are really just an excuse to sell greeting cards and merchandise, but it’s also an excuse for me to play a song. So I thought this time we’d listen to, I don’t know, maybe this is an anti-Valentine’s Day song. This one’s by Etta  James. It’s a song called “Love’s Been Rough On Me”.


Etta James is a legend. She was born James Etta Hawkins in Los Angeles on January 25, 1938. She was 16 years old when Johnny Otis heard her singing in San Francisco. He asked her if she was 18. She lied. He brought her back to LA, renamed her Etta James, and she cut her first record with him, “The Wallflower”, in 1955.


She released a few more singles, but the hits dried up for a while and so did the good paying gigs. To find a new opportunity, she borrowed a few bucks from Jackie Wilson and bought a bus ticket to Chicago to meet with Chess Records. Leonard Chess liked her a lot and signed her up. One of her earliest singles for chess was “All I Could Do Is Cry” in 1960, written by Billy Davis and Barry Gordy Jr. in the days before he started Motown, she recorded this vocal in one take.


Chess Records was home to Muddy Waters, Howlin’Wolf and Chuck Berry. There wasn’t much call for strings, but once they started working with Etta, they pictured her as a balladeer as well as a house rocker, and issued quite a few lushly orchestrated ballads, culminating in the universal classic “At Last”.


If Etta James had never cut another song, her legacy would be cemented by that track alone. But of course, she cut a lot more records than that. In 1963, she released one of my favorite records of hers, a live album recorded in Nashville called “Etta James Rocks The House”.


Hard to believe that’s the same woman who sang “At Last”.

Life was not easy for Etta. She was a heroin addict and would struggle with addiction for the rest of her life. Over the course of her career, she would be arrested more than once. In and out of rehab, she spent 17 months in a psychiatric hospital. Somehow, in the midst of all that, she managed to record some great music, like the classic “Tell Mama” in 1967, recorded in Muscle Shoals Alabama.


And the B side of that single was a song just as iconic: “I’d Rather Go Blind”.


Though she was no longer hitting the charts by the mid 70’s, and therefore off the general public’s radar, she continued to make records for three more decades. In 1997, she released an album called “Love’s Been Rough On Me”, and this is the title song from that album. The song was written by Gretchen Peters, who’s released a bunch of her own records. But I think this recording by Etta James was the first time the song had been released. I don’t know if Gretchen wrote it specifically for Etta, but she might as well have. Etta delivers it like it was made for her.

This is a song about the real cost of love. Love can give you something amazing, but it can also exact a terrible price. I love this song because it doesn’t sugarcoat the subject. It’s not overly poetic, it’s not trying to be clever with its lyrics. It’s just laying it all out there, honestly.

There are two guitars, very cleanly recorded. One panned more to the left, the other panned hard right, and they’re playing off of each other. There’s a piano and a little bit of what sounds like a pedal steel guitar. It’s all very nicely setting the stage for Etta’s vocal.


“They say life goes on… well, I can’t prove it, but I know they’re wrong”. I love that line.


That brings us to the first chorus.


“I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I don’t seem to be able to get back on my feet.” And with a pretty subtle delivery, Etta makes you believe it.


Speaker B: That’s just a nice little guitar fill there.


I will admit that I’m not into that distorted guitar part there. I’m all for distorted guitars– big fan. But I don’t think it’s needed here. I think that’s just a reflection of the time. This was recorded in the late 90’s. I think if they were making this record today, they would have gone with a different sound.

At any rate, here’s the next verse… and there’s only two verses in this song. Two verses and two choruses, and that’s it. Three minutes, no fat. But honestly, I could have listened to Etta sing this all day.


Let’s bring up her vocal and listen to that verse again.


“Love’s Been Rough On Me” – Etta James

Life was rough on Etta James. Along with fighting addiction, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2008, suffered a MRSA infection in 2010, and in 2011 was diagnosed with leukemia, which would eventually take her life on January 20, 2012, just before her 74th birthday. If anybody understood this song, it was Edda James.

So this song is my Valentine’s gift to you. It’s easy for people to say cliches like “it’s better to have loved and lost than never have loved it all”, but this is a song for everyone who’s ever loved and lost and never quite recovered. Have mercy, because love’s been rough on us all.

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We’ll be back in two weeks with a new edition of the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast. Thanks for listening to this show on Etta James and “Love’s Been Rough On Me”.

Sugar Pie DeSanto (born Umpeylia Marsema Balinton) was a ton of dynamite in a tiny 4′ 11″ frame… and still is, at the time of this recording. Let’s have a listen to this super-fun classic track, recorded with the great Etta James in 1966.

“In The Basement (Part 1)” (Billy Davis, Raynard Miner & Carl Smith) Copyright 1966 Chevis Music Inc BMI

Welcome to the party, friends! This is the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast, coming to you on the Pantheon Podcast Network. I’m your Master of Ceremonies, Brad Page, and on this episode we’re tossing out all the pretensions and going to the place where we can dance to any music we choose– “In The Basement” with Sugar Pie DeSanto

Umpeylia Marsema Balinton was born in Brooklyn New York in 1935, to a Filipino father and an African-American mother. Her mom had been a concert pianist, so she had music in her blood. Her family moved to San Francisco when she was four. She was close friends with Jamesetta Hawkins, who was discovered by Johnny Otis and renamed Etta James. Umpeylia won a number of talent contests in San Francisco and LA, and eventually Johnny Otis turned his sights to her, signing her in 1955 and changing her name to Sugar Pie DeSanto.

Sugar Pie stood only 4 feet 11 inches tall, but she packed an explosive amount of talent in that small frame. She had a giant voice and boundless energy, doing backflips on stage. Her first hit came in 1960 with “I Want To Know”, which reached number 4 on Billboard’s R&B chart.


Sugar Pie moved to Chicago and signed with Chess Records, where she recorded more singles. Her biggest hit with Chess was a track called “Soulful Dress” in 1964.


In 1966, she reunited with her friend Etta James for a duet called “Do I Make Myself Clear”:


After the success of that single, Sugar Pie and Etta James went back into the studio in ’66 to cut another song together: “In The Basement”.

“In The Basement” didn’t turn out to be a big hit, but I think it’s one of the all-time great dance party songs– right up there with “Dancing In The Street”. “In The Basement” was written and produced by Billy Davis, Raynard Miner and Carl Smith. The song kicks off with a snare drum hit, then a classic bass guitar riff, doubled on the piano:


You can tell the party’s already started with the crowd noise in the background. After two bars of the intro riff, there’s a short one-beat pause then the intro riff transitions into the main riff. It is a bit of a different riff, and that’s where the guitar joins in.


This is where the first verse comes in, and to set the stage, here’s what Etta James said about the recording of this track:

“I flew up to Chicago where I recorded with my old friend from San Francisco, nutty wild-ass Sugar Pie DeSanto. I dug singing “Into The Basement”, a song that took us back to when we were kids; cutting up, smearing on lipstick, kissing on boys, being bad gang girls with our homemade tattoos and floppy jeans. With happy voices chattering in the background, the record is an all-night-long party, with funky music blaring.”

That pretty much says it all. Here’s the first verse:


“Where can you go when the money gets low? In the basement.” Kids with no money, no transportation, too young for the clubs… what do you do? You get together in a friend’s basement where you can turn up the music and have a space of your own.

Now, granted, we were suburban white kids, far from the inner city where I grew up, but we did basically the same thing; hanging out in the basement, playing tunes. A couple times a year, we’d set up our guitars and drums in a friend’s basement and play a show for a dozen of our closest friends. Those moments of escape, freedom and promise… pretty universal experience for most American teenagers, I think.

"Where can you dance to any music you choose, 
you got the comforts of home and a nightclub, too.  
There's no cover charge or fee, 
and the food and drinks are free, 
down in the basement."

That’s the second verse.


I love the scream and the backing vocals here.

Let’s bring up the vocals on this last verse


“In The Basement” by Sugar Pie DeSanto and Etta James.

Sugar Pie, like so many artists, never made it to the big-time commercially. She’s had to eke out a career over 50 years now, but she kept on going. In 2008, she received the Pioneer Award by the Rhythm And Blues Foundation. At the ceremony, she performed “I Want To Know”, her first hit. And in the middle of the song, she got down on the floor and did a backward somersault.

At the time of this recording, Sugar Pie DeSanto is 85 years old, still going strong. She’s overcome a lot in her life: drugs, alcohol, and tragedy– she was married five times, twice to the same man, Jesse Davis, who died in a fire at their apartment in 2006. Sugar Pie said “He saved my life, but he couldn’t save his own”.

If you’d like to hear more of Sugar Pie DeSanto, there’s a great compilation CD called “Go Go Power: The Complete Chess Singles” that I highly recommend.

Thank you for being a part of this episode. The “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast will be back again soon! Find us on Facebook, where you can write a review or leave a comment; you can find all of our previous episodes on our website,

This show is part of the Pantheon Network of podcasts, where you’ll find discussions and conversations on all the great bands and artists. Thanks again for listening, and let’s keep the party going with “In The Basement” by Sugar Pie de Santo.