We all Love Etta James and there are quite a few things we can learn from the legendary queen. What we can learn from the queen is the love she inspired. What the love songs of Etta James can teach us about the beginning, the ending, and keeping relationships.
Etta James, known as the Matriarch of R&B, died today at the age of 73 after a long battle with leukemia. She’s survived by her husband of 41 years, two sons, and all of us who fall in and out of love to her music.
I fell in love with Etta James and my high school sweetheart, Greg, at the same time. Greg and I would drive around our respective small towns blasting “At Last,” like it was a rap song. Etta James’ music was beautiful and romantic. More than anything, I was struck by its universality. Even then, I knew that not everyone shares the same expectations or outcomes in love. But every love is the same in a few ways. It works until it doesn’t. It doesn’t work until it does. Even if you’re lucky to share 41 years with someone, something ends the streak. There’s beauty in endings and beginnings.
I eventually broke my high school sweetheart’s heart… or maybe he broke mine. But Etta James never left me. Her music taught me about the elation and grief of love. Here are the five biggest lessons I learned from her songs:
1) “I want a Sunday kind of love.”
In “A Sunday Kind of Love,” Etta James praises the everyday kind of love that “lasts past Saturday night.” This isn’t love in the best lighting or at its most novel. It’s the kind of enduring love that’s around when you’re low. Or when it’s Monday. Or when you’ve been together so long that it’s not a discussion of love at first sight. It’s just love at every special or unspecial moment.
2) “All I could do was cry.”
Etta James is at a wedding with the man she loves… watching him get married to someone else. In “All I Could Do Was Cry,” she does just that. She shows up and owns her feelings, presumably keeping them to herself (and then sharing them in a song). James doesn’t try to get in the way of what’s happening. She’s not going to plead for the one that got away to love her. Who wants to bargain for someone’s heart anyway?
3) “We can get along…if only you trust in me.”
Unlike many songs that came out at the time, “Trust in Me” isn’t about what Etta James seeks from her partner. It’s about what she brings to the table as an emotional equal. She urges her love to “come to me when things go wrong. Cling to me, daddy, and I’ll be strong.” Don’t ask what your man can do for you. Tell your man what you can do for him.
4) “I found a dream that I could speak to.”
“At Last” isn’t just about finding the One. It’s about realizing that if you’re patient and sincerely want something to happen, it can happen. This is why the song’s perfect for a wedding or the inauguration of our first black president. Dreams do become a reality. It just takes time.
5) “I want you to be true, and I just wanna make love to you.”
You can be coy about what you want in a relationship and in the bedroom, or you can follow the example of Etta James. In “I Just Wanna Make Love to You,” she tells her lover what she wants (to make love, for him to commit) and what she doesn’t (to control him). James is traditional when she expresses the desire to cook and clean up after him. But she’s going to speak her mind and get hers, too.