Hosts Joe Watson and Toby Brazwell take a hard look at legendary tracks of the past and present, connecting the dots on the music they sample and the songs that inspired them. Join us for Season 3, where Riffs takes a deep dive into the tragic world of 24-Carat Black, the band everyone has heard, but nobody has heard of.
If given a choice between sipping whiskey and going blind, the answer is pretty clear. But when listening to Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” and Chris Stapleton’s cover of “Tennessee Whiskey”, things get a little fuzzier. Join Joe and Toby as they wind through the connections between these two tracks.
What we geek out over in this episode: The Peaches, Johnny Otis, Hank Ballard, Little Richard, Georgia Gibbs, dating B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Nas and Olu Dara, dropping out of college to be famous, Sea Gayle Music, Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker’s “Come Back Song”, Luke Bryan’s “Drink a Beer”, The Steeldrivers, The Jompson Brothers, George Jones, David Allan Coe, the shine of Olivia Newton John, Beyonce channeling Etta, collabs with Justin Timberlake.
Bonus Material: Other samples of and by Etta James, including Flo Rida, Avicii, The Army of Pharaohs, Little Big Town, and Guns ‘N’ Roses.
Joe: Hello and Welcome to Riffs on Riffs, where we explore the collision of original and sampled tracks and the artists who made them. I’m your host, Joe Watson, and I’m here with my co-host, Toby Brazwell.
Joe: Together, we listen to the legendary tracks and the timeless — butsometimes not-so-well-known — songs they sampled from. Toby, what are we listening to today?
Toby: We are listening to smoky sweet vocals of none other than Chris Stapleton and his hit song Tennessee Whiskey.
Toby: Why don’t we hop in the Delorean and see what track was sampled to make this hit?
Play I’d Rather Go Blind
Joe: Toby now that we’ve let this smooth track marinate in our eardrums for a bit, why don’t you tell the good people what we are listening to.
Toby: We are listening to the incomparable vocals of one Miss Etta James and her hit song I’d Rather Go Blind. I gotta tell you, I’ve been waiting for an excuse to research and learn more about this vocalist for some time.
Joe: Anyone that has won 6 Grammys and 17 Blues Music Awards in addition to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is certainly worthy of all the accolades that she’s received. Toby, why don’t you start us off with a little information about Ms. James.
Toby: Jamesetta Hawkins was born on Jan 25, 1938 in Los Angeles. She never knew her father although it was speculated that he was none other than famous pool player Rudolf, “Minnesotta Fats Wanderdone. Her mother was only 14 when Jamesetta was born and was in and out of her life which resulted with Jamesetta living with several different foster families.
Joe: One of the families she stayed with was a couple named Sarge and Mama Lue. While staying with them she received vocal lessons from the musical director of the Echoes of Eden Choir at St Paul Baptist church. The musical director James Earl Hines was physically abusive with his vocal instruction to ensure that Jamesetta sang from her gut and in the way he wanted her to.
Toby: This is a sad story man. Jamesetta was punched in her chest to make sure she sang from her diaphragm. To make matters worse she also suffered abuse from Sarge at home. He would wake her up in the middle of the night to sing for his friends during poker games. this is definitely not the optimal way of learning how to sing. I’m surprised that she kept singing when she was on her own and had a choice.
Joe: At the age of 12 her foster mother Mama Lu, died and her biological mother took custody of Jamesetta. They left for San Francisco and there she began listening to doo-wop and formed a girl group called the Creolettes
Toby: At the age of 14 she met a musician named Johnny Otis who is credited for a couple of things. First he changed the girl group name from the Creolettes to the Peaches. He is also credited with renaming Jamesetta by transposing her first name making it Etta James from that point on. I approve of both of these messages and yield back my time.
Joe: Otis tasked the Peaches to record the answer song for a track called Work with me Annie by Hank Ballard. Let’s take a listen to Hank Ballards hit single Work with Me Annie
Play Work With me Annie
Joe: Now let’s listen to what the Peaches did with their response song called Roll with me Henry released in 1955.
Play Roll with Me Henry
Toby: This song actually goes by a few different names including Dance with Me Henry and Wallflower. By Feb 1955, Roll with me Henry reached #1 on the R&B tracks chart and that helped them get on a national tour with this guy
Play Good Golly, Miss Molly
Joe: That’s Little Richard and his hit song Good Golly Miss Molly, and I’m sure that we will be doing a show on him in the future. But for the time being, let’s get back to Etta James. Toby, we have discussed several artists that have borrowed bits of other songs and incorporated them into new songs and then claimed it as their own.
Toby: We just did an ep on that a little bit ago with Ed Sheeran.
Joe: I’ve often times have said that I can see this happening as nothing malicious or intentional. There’s only so many chords and chord progressions.
Toby: Right… why do i feel there’s a big but coming. And why are you smiling
Joe: Well it was just the fact that you said that there was a big but and then you said I was smiling. Allow me to say this sir, this is a big butt that you can trust.
Toby: Poison!! good to know that you are not tapping into your inner Bell Biv Devoe right now. Back to Miss James. Apparently while James was on tour with Little Richard, a pop singer by the name of Georgia Gibbs recorded a version of the Dance with me Henry and called it Wallflower.
Joe: Taking the song is one thing, but adding insult to injury Gibbs version reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Let’s take a listen to it
Play Georgia Gibbs
Toby: Well this made James a little upset and that led to her making some changes. She left Modern Records label and signed with the Chess record label that was founded by two brothers from Chicago by the name of Leonard and Phil Chess. This would be very instrumental in her career due to the vision that Leonard had. He wanted to take James’ vocal stylings and add strings to have more crossover appeal and turn her into a pop star.
Joe: Safe to say that Miss James leaves quite an impression. And apparently not only on record labels. It’s been said that she dated BB King when she was 16 and it’s rumored that Mr. King wrote this song for her.
Play Sweet Sixteen
Toby: That was a track called Sweet Sixteen by BB King. Like you said before, it’s safe to say that Miss James leaves quite an impression. She began to work with Harvey Fuqua and some of these songs became hits. One song in particular was written by blue musician Willie James Dixon who was known for hits like Little Red lobster and a little gem that was sung by none other than Muddy Waters himself. Let’s take a listen to Hoochie coochie man
Play Hoochie Coochie Man
Joe: That was a classic song covered by many arists including Chuck berry.
Toby: i see your reference and i will do you one better. Hoochie Coochie man was sampled by a song by MC Nas featuring Olu Dara entitled Bridging the Gap from Nas 2004 release Street Disciple. Any chance I get to play Nas is a good day… Let’s take a listen.
Play Bridging The Gap
Joe: Let’s get back to Miss Etta James. Willie Dixon wrote a song called Spoonful that was recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1960, covered by Etta in 1961, and then was redone by The British band Cream. Listeners, take a listen to these tracks side by side and let us know what you think on social.
Toby: 1960 was the year that James released her debut album, At Last on Chess records and this album contains two of my favorite Etta james songs. The first is Sunday Kind of Love. Let’s take a listen.
Play Sunday Kind of Love
Joe: The second track, At Last shares the same name as the album and could definitely be considered one of her signature songs. It reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Let’s give that a listen.
Play At Last
Joe: This album had 4 songs that all charted at 5 or better and the strength of the music propelled the album to go gold.
Toby: James and Chess records wanted to strike while hot and released another album within a year’s time entitled “The Second Time Around” which contained her hit single Fool that I am
Play Fool That I Am
Toby: James released a live album in 1963 called Etta James Rocks the House and saw some success there but took a break afterwards and didn’t return to the recording till 1967 with an album called Tell mama which contains our first featured song. Let’s take another listen to a song that my English teacher always sang to me when I turned in a paper…. I’d Rather Go Blind
Play I’d Rather Go Blind 2
Joe: James continued to release music over the years and although it was well received it didn’t attract the same attention as her work in the 60”s. It does seem that as the years passed that she was starting to be more appreciated for her singing talents.
Toby: Indeed- Someone recognized her skills and that led to her singing for the opening ceremony for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. she also won a Grammy for her performance on a Billie Holiday tribute album for Best jazz Vocal Performance in 1994. She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2001.
Joe: Unfortunately James had a lifetime struggle with substance abuse issues and was diagnosed with alzheimer's in 2009 and leukemia in 2011. She died on Jan 20, 2012 but will always be remembered for her amazing voice.
Toby: What do you say we get into our next featured artist, who also happens to have an amazing voice. Can you tell us a little more about Chris Stapleton?
Joe: Christopher Alvin Stapleton was born on April 15, 1978 in Lexington, Kentucky. I guess that was a nice little present for his folks on tax day — another dependent! Like any good country singer, Chris comes from a line of coal miners. He was a smart kid, too, as he was Salutitorian of his high school.
Toby: Not too smart, he dropped out of engineering school at Vanderbilt after one year. Stay in school people!
Joe: Unless you happen to be Chris Stapleton, in which case you can move to Nashville and make a name for yourself, which is what he did in 2001.
Toby: Stapleton signed as a songwriter with the music publisher Sea Gayle Music. That company was formed in 1999 by some guys you might have heard of. Let’s start with one of them, Chris Dubois, who has written 17 songs that have hit #1, including this duet between Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood. Let’s listen to Remind Me.
Play Remind Me
Joe: Brad Paisley happens to be the other founder of Sea Gayle Music, which also includes producer Frank Rogers. Sea Gayle has written more hits than we can count in their short 20 year span, and the company was named ASCAP Country Publisher of the Year in 2011 and 2012. So Chris Stapleton was clearly in good company as a writer on their roster,
Toby: He certainly carried on the tradition. In 2010, he co-wrote with Darius Rucker and Casey Beathard the lead single from Ruckers 2nd solo album, Charleston, SC 1966. Let’s take a listen to Come Back Song
Play Come Back Song
Joe: Stapleton has been creative machine — he’s got over 170 songwriting credits and six #1 country songs, including this one in 2013 for Luke Bryan. Let’s Hear Drink a Beer.
Play Drink a Beer
Toby: Drink a Beer is about the unexpected loss of a loved one, and Bryan has called that tune “the coolest sad song ever.” But Stapleton hasn’t limited his creative output to other artists. In 2008 he joined the band The Steeldrivers, and their self-titled debut went to #57 on the country charts and the song Blue Side of the Mountain was nominated for a Grammy. Let’s hear that.
Play Blue Side
Toby: Their second album, Reckless, was released in 2010 and was also nominated for a couple more Grammys. Chris left the band in April to focus on songwriting and spending time with his family.
Joe: The pull to perform must’ve been too much, as that same year he formed the southern rock band The Jompson Brothers. They toured regionally in the southeast and had a stint opening for the Zac Brown Band. Country singer Jason Aldean uses The Jompson Brother’s song Secret Weapon as the intro for his live shows, so let’s hear how Chris Stapleton gets his rock voice on.
Play Secret Weapon
Toby: Chris left the band in 2013 to pursue a solo career. He signed with Mercury Nashville and released his first single, What are You Listening To? It did not chart and was part of a record that was never released, but we can still take a listen:
Play What Are You
Joe: His 2015 debut album that was released, Traveler, was inspired by a cross country road trip after his father’s death. His wife helped him sort through 15 years of songs and narrow it down to 9, and I’d say they picked the right ones. Traveler hit #1 on the Billboard 200 and went 3X Platinum.
Toby: A big moment for Chris was his performance at that year’s Country Music Awards when he performed our second featured track, Tennessee Whiskey, with Justin Timberlake. It helped him land the CMA for best new artist in 2015.
Joe: I don't know that anyone with his history could be considered a new artist, but I guess people weren’t paying attention! But people were definitely paying attention to Chris’ version of Tennessee Whiskey. It hit #1 on the country charts and #20 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Toby: A lot of people remember the George Jones version of that song from 1983. That went to #2 on the Hot Country Singles charts, let’s hear that.
Play George Jones
Joe: The original version of Tennessee Whiskey was released by David Allan Coe on his 1981 album of the same name. It was a minor hit and reached #77 on the country charts. Let’s hear that original version.
Play David Allan Coe
Toby: Tennessee Whiskey was written by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove, two songwriters that crafted many hits for numerous artists.
Joe: Bob Dylan wrote Tennessee Whiskey?
Toby: No, not Bob Dylan, Dean Dillon — who has written tons of songs for George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, and many more.
Joe: Bob Dylan does indeed make Tennessee Whiskey though. He opened a distillery in Nashville called Heaven’s Door.
Toby: Road trip!
Joe: Linda has had her own run of success, including this hit for Olivia Newton John in 1975 that went to #1 on the easy listening and #5 on the country charts. Let’s hear Let It Shine
Play Let It Shine
Toby: Getting back to Stapleton’s version of Tennessee Whiskey, Chris had this to say about how it came together:
“We had a show in Charlottesville, Virginia, and we were sound checking, waiting around for the mics to get set up. Me and the guys in the band started playing a little bit and got into that groove, so I started thinking, “Man, what song could I sing over top of this?" For whatever reason, I started singing “Tennessee Whiskey." At the time, we had a steel player by the name of Steve Hinson who used to play with George Jones on the road—maybe that was part of the equation. But we decided to do the song that night and every night since. By the time we got into the studio, it was something we all enjoyed playing. It's a part of the fabric of things that influenced me over the years.”
Joe: A lot of folks on the interwebs have noticed the striking similarities between this version and I’d Rather Go Blind. Let’s take a listen to how they sound together:
Play Rather Whiskey
Toby: So there’s no question a songwriter like Stapleton would be unfamiliar with Etta James — he must have known that I’d Rather Go Blind track. Why not give her a songwriting credit? Especially since he knows the importance of that given his profession?
Joe: This is where I think we start to go down that old slippery slope. Yes, Stapleton certainly must have known the I’d Rather Go Blind track, but he’s probably heard hundreds of other songs that have the exact same feel. It’s just a slow blues groove, been done countless times, and if we had to start licensing that no one would be able to make new music.
Joe: Let’s take a listen to a couple other versions of I’d Rather Go Blind. First from the 2008 movie Cadillac Records, where Beyonce portrays Etta James and performs the song.
Toby: There’s also a great version from Joe Bonamassa and Beth Hart from their 2011 collaboration album Don’t Explain. Let’s hear that.
Play Joe and Beth
Joe: Different versions of the same song and groove. To me that’s the fun of the blues — you can take the exact same progressions, use them as a template, and paint your own sonic masterpiece with your voice or instrument. It’s not about the foundation, it’s about the nuance and what you do with it.
Toby: Chris Stapleton released two albums in 2017, From a Room: Volume 1 & 2. Both debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200, and the song Broken Halos won the Grammy for Best Country Song. Let’s give that a listen.
Play Broken Halos
Joe: In 2018, Chris collaborated with Justin Timberlake for the song Say Something off of JT’s Man of the Woods album. This reached the top ten in the US and many other countries, including #1 in Slovenia! Let’s hear it.
Play Say Something
Toby: It certainly seems like we can expect many more hits from Chris Stapleton. But now I think it’s time we move on to our bonus material. What do you say we find some more interesting connections to Etta James?
Joe: Sounds like fun, where do you want to start?
Toby: First let’s hear her 1962 song Something’s Got a Hold on Me…
Play Somethings Got
Toby: … now let’s hear how Flo Rida sampled that for his 2011 hit Good Feeling:
Play Good Feeling
Joe: Avicii also used that same sample for his 2011 track Levels. Ok, I see where we are going, how about this one, first the 1961 Etta James song Don’t Cry Baby…
Play Don’t Cry Baby
Joe: … and now one of your favorites, Toby. Let’s hear how Army of Pharaohs used this for their 2007 track Don’t Cry
Play Don’t Cry
Toby: Etta has done some flipping of the country script herself. Remember the top ten hit from Little Big Town, Boondocks? Etta covered it on her 29th and final studio album in 2011, The Dreamer. Let’s hear her version of Boondocks.
Joe: That’s not the only interesting cover on that album. You talk about flipping the script, let’s hear how Etta covered the Guns N Roses classic, Welcome to the Jungle. Yes, I said Guns N Roses.
Play Welcome to the Jungle
Toby: Good stuff as always my friend. I think that’s about all the time we have for this episode. Can you tell the good people what all we covered?
Joe: Our first featured track was Etta James I’d Rather Go Blind, and our second featured track was Chris Stapleton’s version of Tennessee Whiskey. For our bonus material we connected some other artists to Etta James. Tell me sir, what do we have lined up for our next episode?
Toby: We will have some strawberries, maybe 23 or so, and apologize to Ms. Jackson.
Joe: That’s a very specific number, you must be for real. I’m looking forward to it, so until then, thanks for listening and we’ll catch you next time for Riffs on Riffs.