Two of music’s favorite children made their transitions recently. One was once considered the Queen of the Blues, the other a Master of Funk. I’m speaking of Etta James and Jimmy Castor, two people in music that may not have always been top of mind as artists via the mainstream, but certainly loved and highly respected among their fans and peers.
I could write overviews of their respective lives, giving you bio information about their accomplishments by the time of their respective transitions, but several have already done that since their departures. Instead, I’ll reflect on how they both came into my life, and how my appreciation grew for them by way of their music.
Jimmy Castor’s album “It’s Just Begun,” was one of the first three albums I ever owned. My first album came along with my first Hi-Fi stereo system. It was Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Imagination,” the Christmas of 1973, I was ten-years-old. Although Castor’s “It’s Just Begun” was released in 1972, I got it and James Brown’s “Revolution of the Mind,” which dropped in 1971, shortly there after. At the time, the favorite on Castor’s album was his hit “Troglodyte.” I would play my album pretending to be the character Jimmy was singing about in the song, a caveman. Remember the lyrics “Gotta find a woman – Gotta find a woman – Gotta find a woman – Gotta find a woman.” Totally young and clueless, the means by which the Troglodyte went about getting a woman, did not influence my mode of operandi when I came of age to engage the female species – but it was a fun and funny song, that later spawned Castor’s hit “The Bertha Butt Boogie.” Time went on, the popularity of the album died down as albums do, and then… in 1983, more than ten years after it’s release… BOOM! “It’s Just Begun” is like a brand new hit record because it’s featured in a little movie called “Flashdance.” It was amazing! Things like this just didn’t happen, at least not as far as I knew then, and even now – this was by far an exception, but attributed to the greatness and longevity of Castor’s music. It unequivocally established that Castor’s music, which focused on primitive man at the beginning of creation, was waaaayyyy ahead of its time. We even used the song here at The Museum of Un-Cut Funk as the music on our homepage, when first establishing the website in 2009.
Castor was hospitalized in November after suffering a heart attack and undergoing quadruple bypass surgery. He died Monday, January 16th at Saint Rose Dominican Hospital, his son said. Castor, head of the musical group the Jimmy Castor Bunch, lived with his wife, Sandi, in suburban Henderson near Las Vegas. His son said his work has been sampled over 3,000 times by various artists, according to the Associated Press. Jimmy performed at the Long Beach Funk Festival in California last August, and had booked dates for a European tour this year.
Although Etta James’ signature song “At Last” was released in 1960, three years before I was born, it wasn’t until 1987 that I discovered it. I became aware of the recording while working at WBLS in New York. One of the producers of what was then known as “Hal Jackson’s Sunday Classics,” I was digging through the crates when I came upon this cover seen below (purple background), which was actually a re-issue of the album jacket beside it.
“She’s gorgeous,” I thought, then I put the needle to the record… Wow! How was it that I had never heard this song before? I was shocked and amazed that something so lush and beautiful had eluded me for so long. I immediately played it again, enraptured by her voice, the strings and composition of the piece, I programmed it for Hal’s show. Incredibly a year later, the song popped up in the film “Rain Man.” Hmmm, I thought, here I was at a radio station in New York selecting music for a show that was number-one in it’s time slot and one of the songs I selected that’s now nearly 30 years old, pops up to set a sentimental mood in a new hit film starring a then young maverick Tom Cruise opposite veteran actor Dustin Hoffman – coincidence… I think not. It worked beautifully in the movie, and began being heard more often as a result. In 2006, during my tenure at MTV, Christina Aguilera said she could die happy now, because she got to meet her idol Etta James. The two posed together for a photo spread in the July issue of InStyle magazine. Aguilera’s coupling with James nearly brought the singer to tears because James seemed to idolize her too, according to reporter Jennifer Vineyard, whom I worked with from the online department. She further reported via MTV online Aguilera and James stating the following:
“Etta is my all-time favorite singer,” Aguilera explained. “I’ve said it for the last seven years — since I had my first debut record out — in every interview, in every story, in every on-and-off camera question. I mean, all of Etta’s old songs, countless songs I could name, I grew up listening to. That music was always such a huge escape for me, even from a young age.” Aguilera’s grandmother used to take her to look for vintage records, which was how she got introduced to soul, jazz and blues. “There was such soul, emotion and raw heart in it,” Aguilera said. “When I first heard her stuff, and I heard her say on TV, [in response to the question] where she got her style, ‘I grew up on Etta James,’ that made me feel so good,” James said. “The last person who said that was Janis Joplin, but Christina can sing. Janis was good, but there’s a difference in the quality of voice. I couldn’t believe that big sound… that big voice was coming out of her. Tell me who you’ve seen that sings like her, because we don’t have anybody,” said James.
Two years later, Beyonce portrayed James in the movie “Cadillac Records,” and sang Etta’s hit “At Last” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration ball on January 20th in 2009. The following month at a concert in Seattle according to MSN News, James said on stage: “You guys know your president, right?” she asked the crowd amid cheers, “You know the one with the big ears? Wait a minute, he ain’t my president, he might be yours, he ain’t my president. You know that woman he had singing for him, singing my song — she’s gonna get her ass whipped. The great Beyoncé …
But I can’t stand Beyoncé. She has no business up there, singing up there on a big ol’ president day … singing my song that I’ve been singing forever.” In a post-inauguration chat with the New York Daily News, Etta’s son insisted she was delighted by Beyoncé’s performance. “She thought it was great,” said Donto James, who explained that his mother wasn’t feeling well enough to travel to Washington, D.C. “She’s gotten emotional, just like everybody else… She was honored.” Etta later confessed as well, that she was only kidding about her rant about Beyonce.
Jimmy Castor and Etta James will definitely be missed, but their legacy lives on. This blog is in tribute to them both.