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”.