Hitmakers Reborn: Etta James and Gil Scott-Heron

by Bob Schwartz

Twice, artists who died in the past year have been reborn as hitmakers through the miracle of musical merger.

Both Etta James and Gil Scott-Heron play posthumous parts in two irresistible and near-perfect records—even if only a small number of listeners know exactly what they are listening to and who made these records the success they are.

Hip-hop sampling has been a great creative development. What began as inclusion of bits and pieces has become a full-scale integration unknown in any art. This isn’t quoting or paraphrasing or homage or covering. This is merger.

One case is Flo Rida’s Good Feeling, a three-layer cake with the incomparable Etta James at the foundation (and as the icing). You’ll recognize her powerful gospel-soul riff from 1962’s Something’s Got a Hold on Me:

“Oh, oh, sometimes I get a good feeling, I get a feeling that I never, ever, ever had before.”

In 2011, Swedish producer and DJ Avicii made this hook the centerpiece of his dance hit Levels, laying it in the middle of the beats and the record. Flo Rida in turn sampled Avicii’s recording, including Etta James, to create Good Feeling. The song is even named for the lyrics of the original. Flo Rida had the commercial good sense to put Etta James’ voice right out front, just six seconds into the record. For the next four minutes we can’t wait for her voice to rise up again. And to demonstrate just how powerful the riff is, you can now hear the record in major commercial campaigns, including one for Buick.

Then there is Drake’s Take Care, featuring Rihanna. This is even more layered. It begins with the song I’ll Take Care of You, written by Brook Benton and recorded by Bobby “Blue” Bland in 1959. Groundbreaking musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised) recorded the song on his final album I’m New Here (2010). The track was remixed the next year by Jamie xx, amping a plaintive and soulful performance into a beat-based I’ll Take Care of U. This is the mix at the heart of Take Care.

One piece of good news is that the records that emerged from this process are simply great. They are great, especially in the case of Good Feeling, because of the artistry they are based on. There is also good news in that the current artists have given some credit to these predicate performers and performances, though it could have been and still could be much more.

The final good news is that this creates an opportunity for music fans to learn that music didn’t start in 2012, or 2000, or 1990, or wherever the old/new or really-old/old/new line lies for listeners. Listen to Gil-Scott Heron, listen to Bobby “Blue” Bland, and most of all…

Listen to Etta James. You might know Etta James from her biggest hit At Last, which Beyonce sang at an Obama Inaugural Ball. You might know Etta James from the interesting movie Cadillac Records, a dramatized history of Chess Records, featuring Beyonce as Etta James.

But you may not know, and should learn, that Etta James was one of the most talented and versatile artists of her generation, singing standards, pop, R&B, even a little country, and straight blues. Her popularity in other genres kept her from being recognized as one of the blues greats: listen to The Sky Is Crying, Dust My Broom, or Lil’ Red Rooster. A place to start is The Chess Box. And no, there’s no Beyonce anywhere in sight.