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Ferndale guitarist remembers his days with Etta James

for Journal Register Newspapers

Posted: Friday, January 20, 2012

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Bobby Murray played guitar with Etta James for 22 years.

But the Ferndale resident's last contact with the late singing legend was verbal rather than musical.

"A couple of weeks ago, I called her son (Donto) who happened to be in the hospital, at her bed side," Murray said on Friday, Jan. 20, as news spread of James' death at the age of 73, in Riverside, Calif., after a long period of declining health. "He said, 'Would you mind talking to her? She won't talk back, but she responds by squeezing your hand.'

"So he held the phone up to her ear, and I talked for about five minutes. Then Donto got back on and said, 'Oh my God, she's squeezing my hand, Bobby. She's responding."

James -- who kidney failure, leukemia and dementia -- had been in the hospital since mid-December and declared terminally ill by her doctors. The singer, born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, was best known for turning "At Last," a song from the 1941 film "Orchestra Wives," into a multi-generation standard covered by dozen of artists, including Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, Liza Minnelli, Ella Fitgerald, Nat King Cole and Miles Davis.

James also scored hits such as "Trust In Me," "The Fool That I Am," "Something's Got a Hold on Me," "Stop the Wedding" and "Pushover," and Murray remembered said he particularly enjoyed her versatility as a performer.

"She could cover a wide variety of bags in music," Murray, 58, said. "The bedrock of her stuff was blues, but she could effortlessly go from real rockin' stuff to a tender jazz ballad and could even take a shot at country.

"She was there for the early days of rock 'n' roll, Chess (Records), the golden era of soul, the psychedelic era -- just so many things. She had great stories about Jackie Wilson and Little Willie John and Buddy Holly...They were her buddies and her peers."

Murray, who describes himself as "the bad boy" of James' band and continues to lead his own group in the Detroit area, added that, "Playing a show with Etta, you very well could see Mick Jagger in the audience. Keith Richards came to see us at Carnegie Hall. So many people loved her."

James had been inactive since early 2010, when it was announced she was suffering with Alzheimer's disease. She announced that she was formally retiring from music just before the Oct. 25 release of her final studio album, "The Dreamer." The three-time Grammy Award winner was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Rockabilly Hall of fame in 2001, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003 and the Billboard R&B Founders Award in 2006.

Murray said the months of advance notice helped him prepare for her death "intellectually," but he was still "numb" when he got the news.

"Now I'm just going through all the images and memories I have," he said. "Her sons told me a couple weeks ago to be prepared, and as much as you can be, I was -- but obviously dreading that time I would get the phone call. She was just a great talent and a great person to me, and I'll really miss her."

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