My first encounter with Etta James was in 1980 at the Blue Lagoon Saloon Nightclub in Marina Del Rey, California. I can’t remember if it was Etta’s gig or if she was just sitting in. Brian, her guitarist and musical director at the time and later with Paul McCartney, was on stage and had called Etta up out of the crowd to do a song.
I happened to be sitting at a table close to the stage and as Etta made an attempt to get on the three-foot high stage from the front it quickly became obvious that she was not going to make it up. Etta teetered on the edge of the stage, while Brian, with his guitar still around his neck, was trying valiantly to pull Etta up…without much success. Quickly appraising the situation, I darted to the stage to assist and soon found myself in the awkward position of pushing on Etta’s ample bottom. Another gentleman joined me, thank God. Brian and I weren’t making much headway alone and together we managed to get Etta safely on stage. The crowd roared.I will never forget Etta’s smile of thanks and that naughty little wink she gave me for having gotten so familiar in such a short time, and in public. Little did I know then how much I would learn, many years later, about that wink and how much more intimate we would become.
My second encounter with Miss Etta was at a blues club in Riverside, California around 1996 where I was fronting a band with guitarist extraordinaire Josh Sklair. Josh was at the time and continued to be, her longtime musical director and band leader with Etta’s two sons, Donto (drums) and Sumetto (bass). Josh had told me Etta was looking for a new sax player and that she might show up and do a couple of songs with us but not to hold my breath.
Well, Etta did show up with commotion and fanfare. She had a well-deserved run of good luck and record sales at the time, not to mention the use of her songs in major national commercials. Consequently, she was recognized with all the trappings. She was moving around at the time with the aid of an electric scooter. She had become quite heavy and it was taking a toll on her knees. Even though she could stand and walk she preferred to perform while sitting on her custom made, “throne”. I watched in awe as her handlers, and there were many, prepared the stage for the Queen to arrive. We did a set or two so Etta had a chance to see me do my thing. When she arrived on stage she never looked at me until she wanted me to play a solo and then she looked me up and down. I now understand the phrase, “she undressed me with her eyes.” We played Randy Newmans’ You Can Leave Your Hat On, and she tore the place up. And just like that she decided it was enough and she was gone. I had no idea if I had passed the audition or not and though it wasn’t official I was definitely being checked out.
A month or so later Josh called me and said I had received the nod for the sax chair and gave me a tape and some horn charts. The first gig was an out door summer festival gig in the parking lot of a big hotel in San Bernandino, California. There were no music stands and the wind was howling. I was doing my best to read the charts and make sure they didn’t blow away. I thought I was just fucking up and blowing the gig when the trumpet player, Ronnie Buttafucolli, growled at me “fuck the charts, just blow.” I loved him for that since that is one of my strengths: my EARS!
I made it through that gig and began learning the ropes of the Etta James Roots Band, and the all-important pecking order. I must be honest; I was unprepared for the realities of playing in a big band that had been together for quite some time. Solos were seldom given out and once a player had one he would covet it till Kingdom Come. Coming from situations such as Rod Stewart’s band and the Eurythmics where I had been a featured soloist with plenty of solos through the course of a concert. The great session guitarist Michael Thompson, a good friend of Josh’s and a fan of my harmonica playing once told him after seeing a show, “you’ve got the Missionary Man… One of the best harp players in the world and he doesn’t play one solo or any harp at all in a two hour show! What’s up with that?” I have always been grateful and appreciated Michael’s kind words but they had little effect in Etta’s world. In fairness to Josh, it just wasn’t his call. It was Etta’s and rightly so.
I would not get a harp solo for over two years but when I did… well you can bet I made the most of it. I should add that I’m a referring to the live show as Etta used my harp talents from the first record I did with her Life. Love and the Blues in 1996 and every record in between up to 2003 whether studio or live. The song that Etta decided to feature me on harmonica turned out to be a real crowd pleaser. It was Jimmy Reed’s Bright Lights, Big City. Etta sang the shit out of it as with any other song I have ever had the pleasure to hear her sing. She would have me come down off the horn section riser and play right next to her on her left at the front of the stage. We got into a great groove together immediately and we would play off each other, flirting and just carrying on and having a good time. I would play a solo for a few choruses and then hand it back to her by kneeling in front of her like Sir Lancelot while still playing my harp. She would look down upon me, putting her fingers through my hair and saying naughty, sexy things with looks to the audience that only Etta can pull off and the crowd just ate it up. This became a staple in the Etta James Show for years, which brings me to my next little tale…
Etta was riding high in those days. We were headlining many festivals and one of my favorites was the Monterrey Blues Festival at the Monterey County Fairgrounds in California. I love this festival for many reasons but one that sticks out most is the fact that the concert is held on the same stage and venue that Jimi Hendrix did the now famous show where he lit his guitar on fire. Jimi just happened to be the first concert I ever attended courtesy of my older brother Gary Zavala, may he rest in peace. I know my brother loved me but I can’t help but think he was using me to get out of the house by taking me to a Jimi Hendrix concert for my thirteenth birthday in 1968 on a school night. That concert definitely changed my life. Every time we went on that stage in Monterey I thought of Jimi.
We came on stage at a perfect time. It was around five in the afternoon, the heat wasn’t as bad as it was cooling off a bit. The crowd, fifteen thousand strong, had just enough to drink and heard enough of the other bands to be primed for Miss Etta James and the Roots Band Show! Etta was on fire and so was the band. The crowd was into it and everyone could tell it was going to be one of those special nights. Half way through the show I came down front with Etta to do the Jimmy Reed song. We all had to use the backline amps provided for us by the promoters so it was always a hit or miss situation on these gigs but that night I had gotten lucky, scoring a dynamite amplifier for my harp. I was getting that big, fat, Little Walter type sound I love and I was ready. My solo came around and Etta turned me loose, roaring, “Blow, Jimmy, blow!”
Well you do not have to tell me twice to blow a solo, especially with Etta James in front of fifteen thousand screaming fans. I ripped through a few choruses and was about to hand it back to Etta but she urged me on to take another solo. I finally passed it back to her and the crowd went wild. I was soaking wet with sweat pouring off of me, kneeling at Queen Etta’s feet looking up at her. Etta, as always, was dressed to the nines, and that night was no exception. She wore a black sequined evening dress that was very low cut… VERY LOW CUT. She began fondling my hair and doing her naughty shtick as usual but I noticed she was a little more…how should I say…into it. We were kind of trading licks and carrying on when all of a sudden Etta pushes the back of my head with extreme power and my face was pushed deep down into her ample bosom. UP TO MY EARS!
Keep in mind I still had my hands around my bullet microphone and harmonica as I descended into Etta’s HUGE TITS. So I did what any trooper would do…I kept on playing. Very, very surreal though, as if I had slid into a dream. My ears were covered with some of the most storied, “earmuffs”, on the planet.
Consequently I was not able to hear all that well. What I did hear was the crowd roaring and going crazy then I noticed the smell of Etta’s perfume and perspiration, which was, need I even say? A very heady brew. I tried at one point to lift my head but Etta wasn’t having any of that. Those paws were holding me down like a grizzly bear.
Accepting my position and situation, and keep in mind I am I still playing my harp, I tried to make myself at home. At some point I remember thinking to myself, ”I’m playing in Etta James’ tits! In front of a whole lot of people!” After some time she finally let me up for air and what a look she had on her face. If you could imagine a combination of the Cheshire cat that just ate the canary type smile with a, “whatcha you gone do muthafucker” look. I just smiled in a somewhat drugged state (and who could blame me.) I felt like a time traveler who had just barely made it back from another dimension with serious jet lag.
I looked out at the crowd as Etta was saying, “Jimmy Z Jimmy Z!” over and over. I’ve been fortunate in my career to receive some rousing ovations but this one stands out. Besides the usual clapping and yelling there seemed to be a look of awe on some of the faces at what they’d just witnessed. And now that I think about… coming back from another dimension just about sums it up… kind of.
© 2010 Zavala Songs, Inc.
edited by F. Colin & R. Thorny