Tell Mama

Album: Tell Mama (1967)
Charted: 23

Songfacts®:

  • The phrase "tell mama" is used to show compassion and comfort to someone who is upset. In this song, a guy has gone through a rough breakup, and Etta James is there for support, asking him to "tell mama all about it." Seems she's happy to fill the vacancy left in his heart.
  • This was originally recorded by the blind soul singer Clarence Carter earlier in 1967 as "Tell Daddy." Carter wrote the song with Marcus Daniel and Wilbur Terrell and recorded it at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which is where Etta James recorded her album. She changed the gender, and the song got a powerful Muscle Shoals arrangement to help make it a hit.
  • By 1967, Fame Studios and their stable of musicians had a great reputation, with hits by Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett to their credit. Etta James was signed to Chess Records in Chicago, but she made the trip to Muscle Shoals where she recorded this song with the local musicians, including Barry Beckett (organ), Junior Lowe (guitar), David Hood (bass), Roger Hawkins (drums) and Spooner Oldham (keyboards).

    In a Songfacts interview with David Hood, he explained: "Leonard and Phil Chess knew that Etta was a great talent. They wanted her to record where there was a chance of getting a hit, but also where she would be isolated from a lot of the temptations and distractions that go on in Chicago or New York or somewhere. So they brought her down to Fame with Rick Hall. I believe Rick is the producer listed on those sessions. I think Phil and Leonard Chess both came at different times, because there were several sessions.

    We didn't know it at the time, but Etta was pregnant. I just thought she was fat. Very light skinned with a pretty face. And a wonderful singer, really great singer. Even her hair was kind of a blonde color, obviously it was an unnatural color.

    She was not that much older than any of us, but she seemed older because she had been around. She had been a professional since she was about 14 or 15 years old, working with Johnny Otis and different people in Chicago and California. So she seemed much more worldly than her age."
  • This was a comeback song for Etta James, who hadn't had a hit since 1963 with "Pushover." Along with "At Last," it became one of her signature songs.
  • Janis Joplin recorded this in 1969. It was a concert favorite when she performed.
  • David Hood told Mojo magazine February 2013 how he initially copied Clarence Carter's "Tell Daddy" record. "We all knew the song anyway and I started to replicate Tommy Cogbill's original bass line," he recalled. "I thought it was wonderful but Rick (Hall) said, 'Don't do that, play this.' He showed me what to do with my bass and I thought it was horrible. I argued with him but it was what he wanted. We went with his version."
  • This was covered by The Civil Wars for their eponymous second album. Joy Williams of The Civil Wars recalled: "We recorded the performance at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, a place we'd written a few songs before that made it onto (debut album) Barton Hollow. I always felt the musical ghosts in that studio, one of whom was the great Etta James. We're a band that's known for covering songs live in our own way, and we thought it would be fun to take a stab at 'Tell Mama.' I found out later that where we recorded was the same room she recorded her version. That might explain why I kept getting goosebumps."
  • This appears in the movies Monster-in-Law (2005) and Carpool (1996). It was also used in a 2020 Super Bowl commercial for T-Mobile where Anthony Anderson gets his mother on the service and she won't stop calling him.

Comments: 2

  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn November 5th 1967, "Tell Mama" by Etta James entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart at position #98; and 10 weeks later on January 14th, 1968 it peaked at #23 {for 3 weeks} and spent 14 weeks on the Top 100...
    It reached #10 on Billboard's R&B Singles chart...
    Between 1955 and 1978 she had twenty-eight records make the R&B Singles chart; thirteen made the Top 10 with one reaching #1, "Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry)" for 4 weeks in 1955...
    She just missed having three #1 records when "All I Could Do Was Cry" {1960} and "At Last" {1961} both peaked at #2...
    May Ms. James, born Jamesetta Hawkins, R.I.P. {1938 - 2012}.
  • Ted from Phoenix, AzThis is, to my mind, the best song Etta James ever recorded. The brass and vocals are absolutely great, and practically everything else (including the guitars) are part of the rhythm track.
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