Etta James never received the musical acclaim she deserved, but her legacy includes several classic blues tunes. And perhaps one of the most enduring is “I’d Rather Go Blind,” the 1968 hit she co-wrote.
Born Jamesetta Hawkins in L.A. in 1938, James first gained attention singing in her church choir as a youngster. Raised in a troubled and often violent home, she relocated to San Francisco at 14 and soon launched a recording career. She gained attention as a member of The Peaches, a singing group that ultimately toured with Little Richard. James herself landed several gigs singing backup for noteworthy musicians, including Chuck Berry.
But it wasn’t until she began recording for Leonard Chess that her career as a solo artist took off. She burst on the scene in 1960 with “At Last,” which remained her signature song until her death last year. Yet, one of her most soulful and lasting songs came in 1968, when Chess released “I’d Rather Go Blind” on the B-side of another classic, “Tell Mama.” James wrote the lyrics to the song, but signed over publishing rights before the song was released.
In the years that followed James was plagued by a lingering heroin addiction that damaged her career and her finances, until she was able to re-emerge in the early 1990s as a recording and touring artist.
And “I’d Rather Go Blind” proved to have staying power. Soon after it’s initial release, the song was being covered by numerous artists. It became a cross-over hit in 1972 when it was recorded and released by rock singer Rod Stewart, and other artists, including Koko Taylor, also released their own versions of the tune.
However, it was a more recent cover that proved to be one of the most soulful – and true to James’ version.
In 2008, superstar singer Beyonce Knowles was signed to portray James in “Cadillac Records,” a film loosely based on Chess’ recording studio, which also featured Muddy Waters and Little Walter on its roster.
Say what you may about Beyonce, but she nailed the tune. If it was possible to improve James’ original, this was it. James lived to see it, and although she later feuded with Beyonce over the young singer’s version of “At Last” at President Barrack Obama’s first inauguration, the two women were reportedly on good terms at the end.
So, here are the two versions of the classic tune, featuring Beyonce’s debut performance in The Listening Room:
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