Note: Etta has currently stopped touring due to a serious medical condition. Our thoughts and prayers are with her and her family.
In the summer of 2002 we started our annual Mississippi Delta, East Coast swing in Denver for a couple of shows and then a long bus ride to Davenport, Iowa, on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. A funky little town that had seen better days but the locals were very appreciative. We rolled out to St. Paul, Minnesota, Madison Wisconsin, and finally landing at the House of Blues in Chicago. It’s always a party with the Etta James Roots Band at that club.
Everything was going good… maybe too good. After putting in any amount of time with the Etta James camp, one starts to realize that a little bit of drama is par for the course. When there is no drama for a while you find yourself getting antsy and starting to feel like a bucket’s going to fall on your head any minute. Etta’s son Sametto had a word for this phenomenon, along with plenty of other bon mots I hope to share with you. His word for when the shit was about to, or actually was hitting the fan with Etta was, credge. It rhymes with ledge.
Things started getting credge after we left Chicago. There must be a song in there somewhere. We were supposed to head back to Iowa to do a gig but Etta decided she’d had enough of that state and wanted to head straight down the Mississippi and drive all night to Memphis. I could understand her reasoning because if we did the Iowa gig she’d have to drive all night and do the Memphis show that day without any rest which can be rough on the ol’ vocal chords.
The problem or credgeness started with the boys in the band. You see, the members of this particular orchestra were paid by the show. When Etta or any leader starts canceling shows the band starts wondering if they’re going to get paid for it. The theory goes if you are out on the road for a stretch it will be worth it if one does a lot of shows. Otherwise, you are gone for a while and not making much money.
At the time we were traveling on two luxury tour busses. Etta and all her attendants were on one bus and the band on the other. I remember getting on the Rolling Ashtray, our bus, and immediately hearing the boys in the band debating the issue of if we were going to get paid or not for the canceled show. It was discussed thoroughly enough amongst almost everyone that I felt I didn’t need to put my two cents in and I didn’t. Now don’t get me wrong, I can moan and complain with the best of them but this time I just didn’t. Nada. Not one fucking word.
Well, I can’t remember exactly how long that ride from Chicago to Memphis was but it seemed like forever and a day. We finally rolled in to Memphis on the fourth of July and man you could feel it. It was early morning and it was already hot…. and MUGGY.
We usually got our own rooms but for some reason I was rooming with my bro Josh Sklair, the bandleader. I think we were staying at the Peabody Hotel or right by it because I do remember having a drink in the bar with their infamous ducks. Anyway, in the afternoon Josh and I were bored so we decided to take a walk down to Beale St. then maybe check out the gig as it was to be on roof of the Gibson Guitar building which was all in the general vicinity of our hotel. We tried walking but it was so damn hot we got on the little cable car system they have running down to Beale St. It’s always cool checking out the local record stores on Beale, the clubs and bars. They have a great selection of blues (as they would) and I love their t-shirts. After a little shopping and drinking Josh and I headed back to the hotel when we saw the Gibson building so decided to stop in and say hello.
It was a good thing we did as the fellas over there were real nice and offered us any amp or guitar we wanted to use…. for that night. I picked a ballsy little amp that kicked ass for harp. We took a look up on the roof and it was going to be a serious affair. They were expecting over three thousand people up on that roof for dinner and cocktails, followed by fireworks and the Etta James Show.
Well, we finally get back to the hotel and we’re just kicking it in the room when the phone rang. Josh answered and said, “Yeah, he’s right here” and handed me the phone. Now I’m thinking who the fuck is this? Because nobody knows where I am. I’m not even supposed to be in Memphis on this date. I cupped the phone, mouthing to Josh, “who is it?”, and he gives that wide eyed, credge, look and whispers, “Etta.” I could feel the bad voodoo coming right through the phone. The conversation went something like this:
ETTA: Hey muthafucka!! I hear you got a problem with getting paid…. you worried about getting paid muthafucka!!!
JZ: I ain’t got no problems with you Etta. I don’t know what you heard but everything’s cool with me and you.
ETTA: Yeah?!! Well I hear you complaining about getting paid. Don’t I always take care of you muthafucka?!! Ain’t you always been paid, MUTHA FUCKAAAA!!!!!
JZ: There ain’t no problems with me you Etta. Everything’s cool. I ain’t worried about nuthin’ with you, darlin’.
ETTA: Yeah, well… you better make sure I don’t hear ‘bout no mo’ problems ‘bout gettin paid Jimmy Z!!
JZ: No problems here baby….
I looked over at Josh and he let out a low whistle saying, “That was slick, bro… very smooth.” I said, “Yeah, it might have sounded slick but I think I just dodged a bullet. Somethin’ tells me this ain’t over.”
And it wasn’t. We all arrived at the gig which was billed with a big banner on the building as The Gibson Beale Street Rooftop Showcase featuring Etta James and the Roots Band. When we got to the rooftop the party was ON. I mean those Memphis natives knew how to throw a Fourth of July bash. They were knocking back serious quantities of booze and ribs non-stop. Well, you know what I say, “When in Rome…”
We were just about to go on stage when Josh got back from his usual meeting with Etta about what songs we’re going to do and the running order and such when Josh looks at me and says, “Etta wanted me to tell you she doesn’t want to see you tonight.” And I look at him and say ”WHAT?” He says, “You can play harp on the Jimmy Reed tune but don’t come down next to her. Play off in the shadows or anywhere you want but don’t let her look at you. All the guys in the band were looking at me to see what I was going to say. So I said “No problem”…
Except there was a minor detail to be worked out since harp amp and microphone were right next to Etta. I quickly went to the soundman and asked if he could move my amp either to the side of the stage where he was or behind the stage in back of the horn riser. I ended up playing harp sitting in a chair behind the stage on the edge of the roof of the Gibson Guitar Building overlooking downtown Memphis with fireworks going off endlessly… with a cocktail, of course… thinking “What a silly life!”
Sometimes I wonder what the people thought when they heard some blazing harp coming from nowhere or if they even noticed at all… probably not. Who knows how Etta got it in her head that I was the one complaining but in the end none of it really mattered. We all got paid for every show whether we played them or not.
I always knew you would Etta.
(for more about myself & Etta, see my previous post)