Last Friday, the renowned blues and R&B singer Etta James died at a hospital in Riverside, California, outside L.A. James had battled health problems and years of drug abuse, but died from complications of leukemia.
Though James had an early hit in her career with a song called “Dance With Me, Henry” (also known as “Roll With Me, Henry”) and success with a girl group called The Peaches in the ‘50s, the singer really hit her stride when she signed with Chicago’s Chess Records in 1960. She released two LPs in 1961, At Last! and The Second Time Around, both on the Chess subsidiary Argo. On the latter album’s cover, she looks out at the viewer with a wry smile and her trademark blonde hair.
After a number of albums produced by one or both of the Chess brothers, in the late summer of 1967, James went to Muscle Shoals, Alabama’s FAME Studios for an album produced by the studio’s owner Rick Hall. The album, Tell Mama, produced one of her best songs, “I’d Rather Go Blind.”
James told the story behind the song in her autobiography, Rage To Survive, a candid drug chronicle populated by junkies, dealers, and tales of trying to score (reminiscent of Keith Richard’s Life).
The song was actually a co-write between James and a Detroit-based singer and songwriter named Ellington Jordan, who usually went by the nickname Fugi (sometimes alternately spelled Fuji), who was in prison. According to the book, James gave her co-writing portion to her partner at the time, Billy Foster, a member of the ‘50s Los Angeles doo-wop group The Medallions, for tax purposes. (“It bugs me to this day that he still receives royalties,” James wrote.)
While Fugi poured his grief from being incarcerated into the song—he told an interviewer 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”—for James, the song was about being blind in her “love life” and her “personal ways,” she wrote.
For many listeners, the two and half minutes of “I’d Rather Go Blind”–James’ heartfelt performance, the subtle tremolo-picked electric guitar, hovering organ, and swaying horn lines—conveyed so much of the emotion the singer must have been feeling. When Leonard Chess heard the song for the first time, he had to leave the room, crying.
In 1968, Fugi recorded his own version of the song for Chess Records, backed by a Detroit-based psychedelic-funk group called Black Merda. Though a single “Mary, Don’t You Take Me On No Bad Trip” was released at the time on Chess sub-label Cadet, an album by the same name remained in the Chess vaults until 2005, when it was released by a New York reissues label called Funky Delicacies (owned by the early hip-hop concern, Tuff City Records).
Fugi’s version also features trebly guitars as well as his own powerful voice, reminiscent of Marvin Gaye. The singer changes the song title to “I’d Rather Be A Blind Man,” while the chorus becomes:
I do believe that a blind man would have an easier way to go
For what he can’t see he sure can’t feel
And his heart, his heart will never ever know
I’d rather be a blind man, than to see you walk away from me…
In 1978, James teamed up with Jerry Wexler and recorded “I’d Rather Go Blind” as “Blind Girl” for the Warner Brothers album, Deep In The Night. This version, with a slower tempo, saxophone-laden intro, and acoustic guitar, finds considerable new life in the song. In Rage, James wrote that she renamed the song “Blind Girl,” to make it “more specific to the confusion I was feeling.”
Over the years, “I’d Rather Go Blind” has been covered by Rod Stewart (on his 1972 solo album Never A Dull Moment), Christine Perfect (later Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac) with the ‘60s British blues group Chicken Shack, and Beyonce in the fictional Cadillac Records film and soundtrack.
In Rage, James wrote about “I’d Rather Go Blind”: “Funny, but that’s a tune that’s deepened along with my life, it’s meaning growing more mysterious. Me and the song have grown old together.”
“I’d Rather Go Blind”
Something told me it was over
When I saw you and her talking,
Something deep down in my soul said cry, girl,
When I saw you and that girl, walking out.
I would rather, I would rather go blind, boy,
Than to see you, walk away from me child, and all.
Oh, so you see, I love you so much
That I don’t want to watch you leave me, baby,
Most of all, I just don’t, I just don’t want to be free, no.
I was just, I was just, I was just sitting here thinking
Of your kisses and your warm embrace, yeah,
When the reflection in the glass that I held to my lips now, baby,
Revealed the tears that was on my face, yeah.
And baby, baby, I would rather be blind, boy,
Than to see you walk away, see you walk away from me, yeah
Baby, baby, baby, I’d rather be blind now.
Written by Ellington Jordan and Billy Foster