Etta Britt: Out of the Shadows
[Quick update: She puts her mouth where her mouth is. Etta will be touring in October, is writing about her life experiences, and has started to give talks to groups of women, such as CABLE, Tennessee’s largest and most established network of diverse professionals committed to connecting women and opportunity.]
When you hear Etta Britt’s first CD, Out of the Shadows, you won’t believe this big voice was behind other artists for about 30 years. She’s an American Dusty Springfield, with an extra gear: hard rock. Wanna hear what another great voice has to say about her? “All hail, Miss Etta Britt!” —Bekka Bramlett
Out of the Shadows hit Living Blues Magazine’s chart at #20, The Huffington Post interviewed Etta, and all heaven broke loose. “That thing wasn’t out a week when The Today Show called,” she says, sounding amazed— I don’t know why. I think she should be the musical guest on Saturday Night Live.
Lots of adjectives have been used to describe Etta’s voice: powerful, soulful, pitch-perfect, smoky, bluesy, heartfelt, intense, moving, electrifying… Maybe Delbert McClinton (who oughtta know) said it best: “She sings her ass off!”
The CDis so rich in styles, Britt probably could make a whole CD out of each genre; she and her producer/husband/killer guitarist Bob Britt have condensed 30 years of music into a dozen songs. Different tracks could be played on r&b/soul/blues, pop, rock, “adult contemporary,” and maybe even country radio stations. “I guess that’s good,” Etta says. “I want ‘em all.”
If you saw Etta perform, you’d be even more gobsmacked, as the Brits say. (See my review of her opening for Delbert McClinton at B.B. King’s.) Everything Etta delivers on the CD is even bigger and bolder live; she puts every cell into every note. Funky moves, too. (I had to throw that in, because we both dance the same way.) get a taste of the CD on her website: ettabritt.com. Then buy it!! Watch her in action on YouTube; there are plenty of clips, but if you wanna hear the definition of Funk, listen to her wipe the floor with “Clean Up Woman.”
The Beauty Part
Etta scored her first record deal at age 53. You heard that right: 53. She still can’t get over it. “I just sat there and said, Seriously? This is happening now? I’m being offered a record deal? It was a shock to me. Now I’m 55 and I’m just now stepping out into the spotlight; I feel like I’m coming out of everybody else’s shadows. I’ve watched my friends out front get record deals and go on tour, and now I feel like I’m stepping out of those shadows and into the front.”
The label, Wrinkled Records, was founded by successful Nashville songwriter Sandy Knox and record company veteran Katie Gillon. According to Etta, they sign only artists over 40… though they might make an exception for some extra talented 35-year-old pipsqueak.
Some people might’ve developed a big ol’ chip on the shoulder about being in the shadows for so long. Not Etta, who’s both gracious and grateful. “What’s been so wonderful is all the comments from people saying, It’s about time. You paid your dues, you waited, you’ve been patient, you never lost your dream, you never let go of it, and now it’s come around to you, so congratulations.”
The Back Story
From singing Top 40 tunes in a Kentucky nightclub and working in a liquor store during the day, young Etta landed onstage at the American Music Awards as part of country music trio Dave & Sugar. But if you think this is a C&W singer, you won’t think that for long…though it took Etta a while to realize it herself. The little birdie who brought her the news was bass player David Hyde, who worked with both Dave & Sugar and Delbert McClinton: “What are you doing singing country music? You know you’re an r&b soul singer, don’t you?”
Six years later, Etta landed in Nashville, working as a backup and session singer— not just in country music, but also jazz, heavy rock, and a whole lot in between. “When it comes to studio work, I can sing behind anybody,” she says, and she ain’t lyin’. Waylon Jennings, Leon Russell, Delbert McClinton, Al Kooper, REO Speedwagon… she can’t even remember them all.
Along Came Bob
He and Etta met through music, of course. Etta explains: “I was dating the drummer of a band he was in, and then I saw him, and I changed my mind. It was fate. We chased each other around a couple of years before we finally decided that we were made for each other.” They’ve been married for 23 of the 25 years they’ve been together, and Bob divides his time between their band and other peoples’, including Delbert McClinton’s.
Being a Stay-at-Home Mom
Motherhood put the brakes on Etta’s career. She did occasional local gigs, but both parents couldn’t be on the road at the same time; Etta didn’t want to be away from home too much. “I’ll be honest with you, there were times when I had jealousy; I was envious of my friends who were going out there and doing it, and I was a little envious of my husband because he was out there on the road and I was at home, but I was doing what I needed to do: I had those two little girls, and I loved it.”
Bob did an admirable job on Out of the Shadows: kept Etta’s laser voice front and center, never swamped her with arrangements even when they were dangerously sentimental, or blasted over her with his guitar, like so many players would do. He also knew when to strip the music down to the bare bones. I just wish there were more bluesy rockers to balance the ballads; Etta handles both with ease, but it’s been so long since a woman with this kind of voice came along, I want more of that stuff. Having said that, the ballads are gorgeous; she shades every note with feeling. (And this is from someone who likes about two ballads a year.)
Breaking it down:
Track 1: “Dog Wants In” KICKS ASS. No better way to start an album (or a live show) than with this rocker: Etta growls, rasps, shouts. This cut almost didn’t make it onto the album— yikes!
Track 2: “High,” sounds like it escaped from a 1970s album, horn arrangements and all. Not my cup of tea, and I wouldn’t have located it right after the powerful opener, but Etta likes that period of music, and the song was co-written by one of her faves, Paul Thorn.
Track 3 is a haunting, slow version of “The Chokin’ Kind,” and right here I’ll commit heresy and say that after multiple plays of each, I like hers better than Delbert’s, which is brisker and more pop. (Don’t tell Delbert!) Her strong, emotional delivery, backed up by the soulful McCrary Sisters, gives the storyline an extra dimension. Several people have had hits with this song, but I doubt they can top this version.
Track 4 is the stellar “Leap of Faith,” with McClinton. The contrast between his reedy tenor and her full-throated attack will make you rocket up out of your seat and testify. In performance, this song brings down the house; you can see a few live versions on YouTube. My fave: Etta’s first time singing it, on the Sandy Beaches Cruise— the McClintons’ annual pilgrimage to the Caribbean sun, consisting of a boatful of musicians and lucky passengers having a great time 24/7.
On Track 5, “In the Tears,” co-written by Michael McDonald, Etta acts this break-up ballad, especially with her heartfelt soaring on the lines, “Tell me something I don’t know/Don’t just say you don’t love me anymore/Before you walk away/Give me something to hold onto.” Put this on the radio, and you’ve got an instant heartbreak classic. The song resonates with a lot of women (a sad commentary on the way a lot of men dump us); Etta received a Facebook post from a woman thanking her: “I’m so glad about your record. A good friend of mine just broke up with her boyfriend, and one of these songs really hit hard with her; she listens to “In the Tears” over and over, just sitting there crying.’”
Track 6, “I Believe,” a Britt & Britt/Tony Kerr composition, builds from a simple statement to a rousing gospel-style chorus. The lyrics are about peace and love, which could stick the “period piece” label on it, but you gotta love the vocal arrangements, and the crisp finish.
Track 7: “Quiet House,” is a stunner: a grand, emotionally naked ballad, with a gentle, melodic opening line that will Krazy Glue itself to your brain. The subject is one that probably no one has tackled before, because it’s so “feminine.” At first I was almost embarrassed that two songs on the CD (“Quiet House” and “She’s 18”) were about the empty-nest syndrome, then I realized, WHOA—the male-dominated music business has decided that certain subjects aren’t song-worthy? How brainwashed are we to think that way? Hell, men write songs about getting drunk— how important is that?
Each syllable is charged, and no wonder: Etta wrote it from her own experience after her two daughters, Hannah and Bonnie, had flown. The arrangement is a very intimate, spare one that fits perfectly: just a cello and piano, allowing her to wrap her gorgeous voice around the lyrics.
The song was inspired by Facebook, in a way. “I was going through a period when I was waking up at 3:30 or 4 a.m. every morning and couldn’t go back to sleep, so I’d get up and make coffee, go outside, and started really enjoying it; you have that little time, you know?” I’m sure every mother knows what she means.
“One morning I got up and had my coffee, and went on Facebook, and in my ‘status,’ I wrote, “Alone in a quiet house.” A producer friend of mine was awake at the same time, and he commented, “Write it, girl!”
Etta teared up recording it, too. “John Jarvis, the piano player, took me to this beautiful place, he plays so beautifully, and as I sang it I was feeling it, and that’s why there’s places where I’m choked up. I actually messed it up.” The vocals on both this and “She’s Eighteen” (which she also co-wrote) were actually tracking vocals, but Bob wouldn’t give her a do-over. “You hear cracks in my voice,” she said; “ that was just pure emotion. But the ego— I said, ‘Really, you don’t want me to re-sing that?’ and he said, ‘Nope, you’re not touching those.’ And I kind of in my mind went, ‘Oh yeah, I will; I’ll talk him into it.’”
But she didn’t. In the car one day, listening to the rough tracks, she started to cry because she “felt sorry for that woman singing ‘She’s Eighteen.’ It wasn’t like it was me. So I called him up and went, ‘Okay, you’re right, that’s the vocal right there.’”
“Quiet House” is her favorite track. “I do hope that a generation of women—and men— have been touched by it; Bob loved having our daughters here as well. I’ve done it at a writer’s night, and men have come up and said that it made them cry.”
Track 8: “The Long Haul” is a bluesy funky medium-tempo ballad that demands you sing along with the chorus. In performance, she takes this one to the races.
Track 9: “Make It Fast” starts out sounding like another ‘70s throwback, but then gets into a bluesy pop swing. It’s about the Band-Aid theory of breaking up.
Track 10: “Fallin’,” co-written with Tony Kerr, is a love song for grownups: about feeling the same rush over your sweetie “even after all of these years.” Cool, huh?
Track 11: You could swear you heard “The Bigger the Love (The Harder the Fall)” in the Stax-Volt catalogue or on a Dusty Springfield album. Billy Burnette co-wrote it, and it showcases Etta’s big belt voice over a swaying groove. In performance, she rocks it. This one needs to be on the radio, too, and you must sing along.
Track 12: “She’s 18” is another tear-jerker, about letting go of a teenager who wants to leave home. “I wrote this about our youngest daughter, Bonnie,” Etta explains. “A lot of parents relate to it. We did it at a writer’s night, and a man came up to Bob and said, ‘There’s only one problem: she didn’t finish it. She didn’t tell us what we’re supposed to do!’ Well, you don’t do anything; you pray. When they turn 18 they go off and do pretty much what they wanna do.”
Etta’s Juke Box
Etta’s musical influences aren’t blatantly obvious, which makes her a real artist; I can’t stand it when a band is touted as “being influenced by” and instead are stealing licks note for note. Her record collection (yes, records…and tapes) sounds like this:
“Aretha’s #1 in my heart. If I ever got to sing with anybody, she’d be #1 on the list… Old-school country—give me George Jones. I like jazz: Al Jarreau, Earl Klugh, Randy Crawford. I’m an old school r&b gal; Patti Labelle, Gladys Knight; I still listen to Al Green, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding— oh God, he could tear your insides out! When I’m in the car I like the radio station that plays songs from the ‘70s—Fleetwood Mac, the Stones, Pink Floyd—the stuff that I really loved when I was in high school. I recently went to see Rod Stewart. Really the only music I don’t listen to much is show tunes.”
“Ugh,” I say, and we both laugh. She emphasizes, “I’m sorry, I don’t.”
How She Met Delbert McClinton
One burning question for me was, How the heck do you get Delbert McClinton to duet with you on your first CD, and then invite you to be his opening act? Etta didn’t come from a blues background, and Dave & Sugar is a far cry from her music now. She explains, “I’d been stuck doing country and hadn’t been paying attention to what was going on in that other world. When I got off the road I started in Nashville meeting different people and going out and listening to the music. Delbert played in town, I went to a show and went ‘UHHHH! Oh my god, he’s so fabulous!’ So I bought all his records and put a band together. I was almost a female Delbert at the time, I was doing so many of his songs. I was such a big fan, I never dreamt that I would meet him.” But Delbert’s daughter Delaney became a fan of hers.
As part of a female vocal group called Kentucky Thunder (made up of some of Nashville’s best), Etta performed a benefit at B.B. King’s Nashville club for singer Tracy Nelson’s house, which had burned down, destroying all her and her partner/producer Mike Dysinger’s possessions. Taking a break outside on the sidewalk, Britt met Delbert.
“He was standing there talking to us, and he looked at me and goes, ‘My daughter thinks you’re The Shit.’ I said, ‘What?’ ‘My daughter Delaney thinks you’re The Shit; she thinks you’re the greatest thing. She brought me a video of you doing Aretha’s ‘Do Right Woman,’ and I gotta agree.’ I said, ‘Oh my God, thank you!’ It was the first time I talked to him. I went away walking on air: ‘Oh, God, Delbert thinks I’m The Shit!’”
Eventually McClinton invited the Britts onto his annual blues cruise, where a stellar pack of musicians performs and parties for a week. Says Etta, “I just took my shoes off and went for it. The atmosphere was just electric; no one had a clue who I was, and then Delbert gave me a second song. People said that never happens; 17 cruises and he’s never given up his stage.” He would’ve been a fool not to; you cannot ignore Etta Britt.
And she can’t say enough good things about him. “He’s just so giving and generous and wonderful, and he’s been so supportive ever since my record came out, promoting me, letting me sell CDs at the merchandise table, and giving me the spotlight; it’s been amazing.” Seeing them onstage together is indeed amazing: Delbert lets her take the stage from him even during his own set. Guess he’s got nothing to feel insecure about; he is The Man!
Good Things About Being a Woman of a Certain Age
Etta’s starting to write for the next record. I know I should be saying “CD,” we’re both in the same age bracket, and they will always be records; tough noogies, youngsters.
“That’s one good thing about being in our 50s,” says Etta about recording with peers. “We’ve done it a long time. You listen to a song, chart it, and get out there and start working it.”
Somewhere in here she tries out a joke on me: “What do you call a drummer without a girlfriend?” I know the answer; I married one: “Homeless.” We laugh at the universality of that joke; it’s probably the same all over the world.
Re Act II – So What Do You Want Out Of Life?
“Just to keep this going. This is what I want. This is what I wanted when I was young.” (Yep—she used to practice singing with a hairbrush as a mic.) “Then I had the kids, was staying at home, and now I have this opportunity to be out here and do this. This is all I wanna do. I just wanna keep recording, I wanna hit the road, I want this record to be heard by a lotta people; I can get on a bus and go, and tour and just follow whatever the plan is. I don’t know what that plan is. It’s gonna flow the way it’s gonna flow, and I’m gonna go with it. Just to keep making music, to keep writing, and keep recording.”
She also knows she’s making a bigger impact than just musically, by the power of example. “Sometimes I’ll look out during my first two songs and see some gals just sitting there, but as soon I say, ‘You may not know who I am, but let me tell you,’ and then when I get to ‘I’m 55 years old, and just got my first record deal,’ every woman in there is my best friend.” I can testify to the racket at B.B. King’s; it made me proud to be “of a certain age.”
The Huffington Post interview with Etta generated a flood of emails from women saying that they’re going to follow their dreams now. “One woman emailed and said she thought she was just destined to be a grandmother, but now she’s been going to school. Some of them were going to pick up their music again, they were going to start singing again, they were going to start writing again. That was a wonderful feeling,” says Etta. I can predict that’s not gonna stop. Etta’s inspirational. She could probably start her own church.
She sees a bigger picture, too. “I’d love to be able to go out and do some conference-type things where I speak and sing and just talk to women, to let them know that it’s never too late, and just because you’re of a certain age, doesn’t mean that your life is over. It means that it can just be starting. My life is just beginning. I have a whole new chapter that I’ve started on, and it’s an awesome feeling. To be able to go out and inspire other women, to motivate women our age to continue or to start doing something they always dreamt of doing, would be a wonderful thing. If that’s what this is all about, then I’m on board. I’m there.”
Yep; all hail Etta Britt!