There are moments in music that I can replay, over and over and over again, without tiring of the effect they have on me. These are little ten second snippets that are absolutely perfect, like piano introduction to “Thunder Road,” or the the way Ryan Adams croaks “Oh, my sweet Carolina…” in a session he did for AOL, or Johnny Cash murmuring the words, “What have I become?”
The way Etta James slowly, easily, naturally leans into the first notes of “At Last” is one of my favorites. She sounds as easy as a late summer night breeze, and just as comfortable. Her approach into the song is exactly the familiar sound of a longtime companion, leaning into your ear, and whispering, “Hi.” Without ever reaching or straining, Etta captures the entire spectrum of the idea of love, and everything any and every man and woman has learned about the heart and its theoretical mechanisms and its fallacies and its eternal yearning, in those first two notes.
I have a couple of theories about music, and songwriting, and performance. One is that some songs have always existed in the very air around us; some songs are eternal, and they are inevitable, and they were meant to be discovered so that we could learn something new. Sometimes, these songs are plucked from the air by exactly the right people: “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2; “Yesterday” by Paul McCartney; “Imagine” by John Lennon. These songs are so right that to cover them would be to become immediately redundant.
Other songs are plucked from the air, but take some time to be discovered by the right voice. Leonard Cohen wrote “Hallelujah,” but the pain, anguish, and frustration of it was only made naked by Jeff Buckley’s hauntingly sparse cover. “Hurt” was a song that erred on the extreme end of the angst scale, but was given gravity and a worldly sense of truth by Johnny Cash’s weary gravel voice. Paul Simon could’ve sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water” but it was only when he handed the reins to Art Garfunkel’s crystal-clear tenor that the song learned to soar. And so on, and so forth.
Etta James didn’t write “At Last” and she wasn’t the first to record it. But “At Last” belongs to Etta. All other versions are irrelevant. Etta James didn’t arrange the orchestration, didn’t produce, didn’t play the piano on the recording. She merely found the beating heart of the thing, and she gave the bones of it life, and she allowed all of us to feel – for three minutes at a time – the rush of falling and believing in an idea as insane and fanciful as true love.
Thank you, Etta. Rest in peace. Heaven adds another to its choir tonight.