Monday, June 01, 2015

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 1: Your Favorite Song

Since I started doing this Challenge regularly each summer, I've learned to loosen my grip a bit on categories like "favorite" and "least favorite" when it comes to songs, if only to avoid simply reproducing the same picks every year.  That's been a good lesson to learn, really.  Kind of like when you learn that the categorical space "best friend" permits more occupants than one, broadening the boundaries of what you allow yourself to call your "favorite" songs doesn't diminish them.  Rather, it adds depth and breadth to that category of love.  Superlatives are by definition exclusive and exclusionary, I suppose, but they need not be so much so.

Like a lot of people, I perhaps too frequently shout out "oh this is my favorite song!" at times when what I really mean is something closer to "this is a song I like."  And songs do fall in and out of my favor (as do a lot of people).  No harm, no foul, there.  But when it comes to seriously picking a favorite song, as today's prompt demands, I wanted to find one toward which I've shown some semblance of amourous fidelity. One that I've never not loved.


My pick for today is Etta James' 1967 hit "Tell Mama," which just so happens to also be the ringtone on my phone.  Here it is:



"Tell Mama" was something of comeback hit for James in 1967, who hadn't recorded much in the years immediately preceding its release, but it was by all measures most definitely a hit, one of the biggest of her entire career.  I've always loved this song for its sassiness, its grooviness, and ohmygod those horns... so you can imagine my surprise when, many years ago now, I read David Ritz's biography (Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story) and learned that Etta James herself hated "Tell Mama" for all the same reasons I love it.

From Ritz's biography, here's James commenting on "Tell Mama":
There are folks who think "Tell Mama" is the Golden Moment of the Golden Age of Soul; they rant and rave about the snappy horn chart and the deep-pocket guitar groove, about how I sang the shit out of it. I wish I could agree. Sure, the song made me money. It warmed Leonard Chess's heart to see the thing cross over to the pop charts, where it lingered for a long while. You might even say it became a classic. But I have to confess that it was never a favorite of mine. Never liked it. Never liked singing it - not then, not now. I almost never perform it. It's not that I don't admire the chart and the songwriter. Clarence Carter... is great. Maybe it's just that I didn't like being cast in the role of the Great Earth Mother, the gal you come to for comfort and easy sex. Nothing was easy back then....
I suppose I get that.  In fact, one of the reasons I originally decided to make "Tell Mama" my ringtone was because I felt like the only time people actually call me on the phone is when they need something.  Still, all due respect to James, I can't lie: every time my phone rings and I hear that tell mama, what you need and I'll make everything alright, I do love it.  (Then again, there's exactly zero chance that anyone will ever cast me in the role of Great Earth Mother.) Though, to be honest, now I also pause to think about why it is that I love to make everything alright, and how it came to be the case that I think I ought.

So, thank you Etta James for this song.  And thanks for the remainder that there's a crap side to being the one to come to for comfort or whatever else, to mama-ing everyone, to always listening, to always helping, to standing-in-reserve as some kind of bottomless resource for satisfying wants and needs. Nothing was easy back then for women, and it isn't today, either.

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