Etta James, Keith Richards and Me

During the mid-80s I worked at the Vine Street Bar & Grill, a small jazz supper club located in Hollywood between Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards. Legends from an earlier age played there every week, Wednesday through Saturday. Nina Simone, Anita O’Day, Yma Sumac, Eartha Kitt, Joe Williams, Moses Allison, Esther Phillips, Shirley Horn, Carmen McCrae, McCoy Tyner, Marlena Shaw, Houston Person and Etta Jones (not James).

It’s beautiful when legends exit gracefully, but few of them do. Working at Vine Street my heart was constantly tugged by a mix of sadness, respect and compassion. There was Esther Phillips, still my favorite soulful singer of all time, walking from the dressing room to the stage, dressed beautifully, wasted on heroin, taking a detour behind the stage wall to the kitchen, puking in the trash can, wiping her mouth on a wash rag, straightening her hair and going out and ripping her heart open for the audience. “I’ve got scars on my knees/I’ve been praying so long,”she’d sing. She died a few weeks later of liver and kidney failure. (Esther’s interpretation of Gil Scott Heron’s “Home is Where the Hatred Is” is an incredibly raw and emotionally naked performance by an artist in any field. (“home is where I live inside my white powder dreams/home was once an empty vacuum that’s filled now with my silent screams/home is where the needle marks/ try to heal my broken heart”) http://www.youtube.com/RvdnMzQGbEQ

Nina Simone, long in exile in Barbados, coming back to L.A. to perform at Vine Street, having a psychotic break in the middle of her first set, screaming into a pay phone, then stomping out the front door, leaving a dressed up Hollywood crowd staring at me for an answer. I didn’t even know the question.

(Those who love always give the most/We’re cryin together from coast to coast/Love leaves us cold and hurt inside/These tears of ours are unjustified/Beggin ya ta, SAVE ME!/Yeah, need somebody to SAVE ME!)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZUlWsmeqr0&feature=related

And Anita O’Day, knocking back shots of scotch at the bar (“don’t put any soda in it, goddamn it, it hurts my voice), insulting the daughter of a long time fan, then going out and screeching on stage, her voice gone, sounding like a cat with its tail caught in a Cuisinart.

And then there are legends that rise from the ashes and go to new heights. Mondays were dark at Vine Street until the owner, Ron Berenstein, decided to make Mondays Blues Night and the headliner every week would be…Etta James.

Anybody who has read Etta’s recent obituary knows her basic story from the 50s to the 60s, her resurgence in the 90s and Grammys in the early 2000s. However, the 80s was where she began to come back. She had opened for the Stones in the early 70s, then dropped out with new substance abuse issues and cleaned up and Vine Street was her first regular gig in years. She didn’t have a manager, her two sons played in her band with a young blonde haired lead guitar player.

I wasn’t really familiar with Etta James at the time she started at Vine Street. I grew up in a neighborhood surrounded by the sound of jazz and blues. Across the street from my mother’s house lived Sweet Billy, who loved to have me over and play Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins, Big Mama Thornton, Big Maybelle, Howlin’ Wolf. Varnell Williams, my childhood buddy, first introduced me to Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and Etta Jones, the jazz singer, but not Etta James.

But when she first walked out on stage at Vine Street the first night, in front of maybe 20 people, most of them comps, and broke into “Tell Mama,” she opened a door I didn’t even know was there to be opened (“Tell Mama all about it/Tell Mama what you need
Tell Mama what you want/And I’ll make everything alright”)
.

Word spread through the L.A. music circle and soon Monday nights were sold out (maximum 100 people in the club). Movie stars, musicians (Stevie Ray Vaughn would show up and stare at Etta, mesmerized by every syllable she sang) and producers and fans came to see her. When she sang “I’d Rather Go Blind” the house would fill with moans, goose bump shivers and gasps as we all relived our major heartbreaks: “Something told me it was over/When I saw you and her talkin’/Something deep down in my soul said, ‘Cry, girl’/When I saw you and that girl walkin’ around/Whoo, I would rather, I would rather go blind, boy/Then to see you walk away from me, child, no.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YApNirMC9gM

            I don’t know how long Etta had been clean and sober when she started her run at Vine Street, but for the first few months her AA sponsor, a huge biker would come every Monday night and sit in the front table to support Etta. I would ask him what he would like each week and he would say, “Give me a 7-up!” in a tone and volume that made me think he was about to disembowel me.

Etta charmed us all, playing with the audience, laughing at herself . And for a few of us young men who worked at the club, she was our dating service. She would stop between songs and heap praise upon us. “Ladies, and especially you ladies, are these young men taking care of you tonight the most charming, most handsome men in the world. Look at Alan and Peter and Tommy. Aren’t they great? You single ladies better grab one of them before somebody else do.” Then she would sing “At Last” for us. (At last, my love has come along/My lonely days are over/And life is like a song/Oh, yeah, at last/The skies above are blue/My heart was wrapped up in clovers/The night I looked at you) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1MUilZpErlw

After a few months of sold out shows there were two men sitting on stools at the bar one night, sliding quickly into their drunken comas, slamming back straight shots. They looked old and haggard to me, the one man’s skin, even in the dark light, had the texture and color of bleached parchment paper. He motioned toward the bar and raised two fingers over the empty shot glasses. I can’t remember how I broke the news to them they had enough to drink and they were cut off, but the older man seemed to take it well, sheepishly, like a reprimanded over eater.

Right then, Etta ended a song and said, “Everybody, the greatest guitar player in the greatest rock and roll band in the world is here. Let’s get him to come up here. Keith Richards!”

Keith Richards! How did I miss him coming in? Vine Street was a small club. I looked around the club. The man I’d cut off was reacting in a funny way to the Keith Richards news, raising his hands and shrugging and mumbling. Etta had walked over and given him a hug. I just cut off Keith Richards, I thought.

“No gwtr, no gwtr,” he slurred to Etta in that drunken patois of lost vowels, strumming an air guitar with his hands. Etta helped Richards off the stool and walked him the short distance to the bandstand. Richards listed to his left and to his right, a centenarian who’d lost his walker. The blond lead guitar player handed Richards his guitar. Richards pantomimed that he didn’t have a pick. Etta snapped her fingers to four and the band started a basic 12 bar blues jam. Richards looked confused, as if he had been thrust into an avant garde music scene with esoteric musical scales and complicated time signatures.

A breeze of embarrassment floated through the club as Richards fumbled through the song. Etta looked at her guitar player, he whispered something to her and he hit the opening bars of the Stones hit, “Miss You.” Richards perked up, his head straightened, a marionette brought to life by a wizard of subterranean musical memory. Richards added fills while Etta sang, did the automatic solo he’d done a thousand times before and finished off the tune with some quick runs. As he walked back toward the bar, the packed house on their feet, he turned to me, a star to be served, and motioned for a drink.

No, I shook my head. He stopped, puzzled.  We looked at each other for a moment. Then he smiled, shrugged and gave me a soft bow, acknowledging my sovereignty and integrity.

Every Monday night, after the show, Etta would sit back in the funky dressing room and I would serve her favorite dish off our menu, clams in a linguini sauce. The first time I brought her dinner she handed me a tip. I waved it off.

“That’s not necessary, Ms. James.”

“Yes, it is,” she said, holding the money out to me. After I took it, she said, “And, it’s Etta.”

That little moment was a symbol of how Etta respected all of us and the part we played in her world. Many of the performers at Vine Street were aloof and demanding and it carried over to their performance: technically rich, emotionally bankrupt. Not Etta. She had the strength to be soft and open and it reverberated through the club every Monday night.

The last time I saw Etta was, I guess, 1987, my last week of work at Vine Street. After the show, as usual, I brought her the linguini. She looked up at me.

“Thank you, Tommy. Sit down, you’ve been on your feet all night.”

I pulled up a chair next to her. We didn’t talk while she ate and there was a comfortable, post show/work serenity in the silence. She looked over at me a few times and smiled. When she was done, I stood up and reached for her plate. She looked at me with the joy we give when all we see is the good in someone (and why don’t we look at everyone like that?) and she leaned over and kissed me on the cheek and tousled my hair.

It was a moment of pure sweetness, affection and love. I walked to the door of the dressing room and stopped.

“I love listening to you sing, Etta.”

“I love singing to you, Tommy.”

When I heard she died, I put on my headphones, lay down on some cushions, closed my eyes and, for an hour, listened to Etta James sing to me.

14 thoughts on “Etta James, Keith Richards and Me

  1. Laurie Insley

    Tom, You have such a gift for breathing life into memories…with just the right touch of love and irony!

    Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  2. janet howe

    Dear Tom,
    My fiend and I were reminiscing about the Vine Street Bar and Grill so I googled it and your article appeared! I was also fortunate to have seen Etta James the night that Keith Richards was there. I was sitting next to him at the bar and this was when the Stones had broken up. I asked him when/if they would get back together and he said, “You now darlin’, it’s complicated.” I will always remember that. My friend dated Peter the bartender for awhile. We were trying to remember his last name. You were very blessed to have worked at such a unique venue and to see so many iconic acts. I miss those little clubs. Take Care. Janet

    Reply
  3. Kevin Henry

    Love this piece. I use to hang out and wrote some reviews about the acts at Vine St. I remember Etta, the owner Ron, and drinking a lot of champagne there. Great memories.

    Reply
  4. mattie majors

    I was searching for an exerpt from or the actual article that I read years ago about Etta James and Keith Richards. It mentioned them as…well…close and stated that they had exchanged ‘marriage vows’ in the ‘behind the scenes’ area of a theatre. The article stated that it was an old tradition in theatre circles. Obviously, this isn’t the article I was trying to find but it is certainly the article I’m so glad found me. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
    1. Duante

      I landed here looking for the same. I’m eternally grateful for this detour. What a hell of a story, and now I need to look up more about Vine St.

      Incidentally, Houston Person is one of my all time favorites, and the first time I saw him was with Etta Jones a few months before she died. I’ve caught him a few times since, and interviewed him once. He did a one-nighter holiday themed show at a club in Columbus my birthday weekend last December. He’s aged a lot and moves a lot more slowly, but the sound and style are good as ever.

      Reply
  5. JOHN PATRICK LANG

    Great piece. Since we grew up in the same house it is probably not a coincidence that Little Esther Phillips is my favorite singer of all time (Dinah Washington a close second). James Levi, Esther’s drummer for years and I used to work out together in the Oakland YMCA. He told me a number of stories about the tortured soul of Esther not many of them funny. “She’s immortal,” I remember telling him. “No doubt,” said James.

    I remember seeing Etta in the late 80’s in the city and they had her name down as Etta Jones, the jazz singer. From the stage, she said, “I don’t sings no jazz!”

    Reply
  6. Maryam Ch

    I attended twice during the summer of 1986. On the second night, Richard Berry, who wrote the song “Louie Louie” sang it with her. I still have photos backstage getting my Etta James LP autographed.

    Reply
  7. Kevin Henry

    Love this story. I used to see Etta at the Vine St. in the early 80s. The place was run by a guy named Ron. I interviewed Etta for the LA Daily News in 1984. One night I was at the bar and this small, older black man kept shouting at the stage. I was just about to run to him and ask him to simmer down when Etta identified him as John Lee Hooker!

    Reply
  8. James VanArsdel

    Great story, Tom. I spent many happy nights at Vine Street in the 80s and saw many of the folks that you mentioned. I became close friends with Linda Hopkins, and got to travel with her when she was doing Black and Blue and Wild Women Blues in Europe. Always enjoyed sitting at the bar, great guys behind the bar to chat with before the shows. What ever happened to Peter? I hope all is well, such great memories. Cheers.

    Reply
  9. Noel Hodda

    Loved reading this. I was searching the Net for some info about which of MCoy Tyner’s Trios I would have seen there in April 1988 (Avery Sharpe & Louis Hayes or Avery Sharpe & Aaron Scott) and came across your blog. Must have been an extraordinary time. I also found a photo of the outside of the Bar taken in 1987. Took me back. I was travelling there all the way from Sydney, Australia.

    Reply

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