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I'd Rather Go Blind by Etta James

Album: Tell MamaReleased: 1967
  • Etta James penned this Southern Blues classic during a visit to her friend Ellington "Fugi" Jordan in prison in 1967. The Detroit singer and songwriter had already outlined the song, in which he poured out his grief from being incarcerated not knowing when he would be released. He recalled to Allhiphop.com in 2006: "I got tired of losing and being down. I was in prison and didn't know when I was going to get out. I sat in a piano room and began to write."

    James and Jordan then completed the song, but for tax reasons she gave her songwriting credit to her partner at the time, Billy Foster, who was a member of the '50s Los Angeles doo-wop group The Medallions. It was a decision that she came to regret as the royalties accumulated over the years.
  • In 1967, during a brief intermission from her heroin addiction, James made an excursion to the FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama to lay down "Tell Mama." She recorded "Blind" for the B-side of the single and also cut a cover of the Otis Redding song "Security." The Alabama studios were perfect for James, since it was an isolated area with little access to drugs and alcohol, and home to some of the best backing musicians in the business. Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)" had been recorded at FAME, as well as songs by Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett. David Hood, who played bass on the sessions, told us that they did the song in one take with FAME owner Rick Hall running the session. Said Hood, "It was a pretty simple song, but her performance was great and apparently our performances were good. They may have gone back and re-done some vocals. In 1967 Rick was just going multi track. It had been mono prior to that. And so fixing things in those days was a whole lot harder than it is nowadays. Sometimes if there was a missed note or something like that, you wouldn't do anything about it, you'd let it go. Nowadays you fix everything."
  • According to James' autobiography Rage To Survive, the lyrics were about being blind in her love life and addictions, though she discreetly replaced smack with booze.
  • By 1968 Jordan had been released and he recorded his own version, titled "I'd Rather Be A Blind Man," backed by the psychedelic funk rock group Black Merda.
  • The song is now recognized as an enduring classic and has been recorded by a wide variety of artists. A version by British blues band Chicken Shack featuring Christine Perfect reached #14 on the UK single charts in 1969. Later on as Christine McVie, she re-recorded it with Fleetwood Mac. Other covers include ones by Rod Stewart on his 1972 album Never a Dull Moment, Koko Taylor, Clarence Carter, B.B. King, and the Noel Redding Band. In 1990 British singer Sydney Youngblood took the song to #44 on the UK single charts.
  • Beyoncé performed this song in the movie Cadillac Records, where she portrayed Etta James. It was also used in an episode of the HBO series Luck, which David Hood, who played bass on the track, recalls watching. He cites it as one of many examples of musicians not being properly compensated when songs they played on are used in commercials, TV shows and movies. Said Hood, "I said, 'I cut that. That's me playing.' And so we have written it down, and now I'm going to go through whatever process it takes to try to get paid on that. Because when they make a show and they put music in it, the producers of the show have to pay to use that song. And if they can't find the people who played on it, that money just sits with the Musicians Union or wherever it goes. Someplace there's a lot of money stacked up."
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