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Heaven is a Playlist, Track 2: Etta James, "Take It To the Limit"
This is the second installment of Heaven is a Playlist — an occasional series about the songs that move me more than any other. Here’s the link to Track 1 and more details about the series.
For a few years in the mid-90s, I was the music writer for the Charlotte Observer. Every day the mail would bring a stack of new CDs (and the occasional cassette, in their dying days). I tried to listen to a little bit of everything, hoping to fall in love, but most of it didn't stick.
One day the stack included an Etta James CD, LIVE FROM SAN FRANCISCO. I knew Etta James was a R&B and blues singer from the '60s, and I knew her big hit, "At Last" -- one of the all-time great slow dances. But I hadn't paid attention to her career. I was surprised she was still alive.
I stuck the CD in the player without looking at the track list. When the second song came on, I didn't recognize it at first. It started with a slow gospel piano lick, and then an organ came in behind it, and then the drummer tapped the cymbal to count Etta in.
All alone at the end of the evening
When the bright lights have faded to blue
I was thinking about a man who might love me
I never knew...
She had my full attention. I grabbed the CD case and looked at the back. Holy hell, I thought. She's doing the Eagles song.
Randy Meisner, the Eagles' bass player, sang the original. It was the only Eagles hit where he sang lead. No one else in the band could hit those high notes in the chorus, much less the run of even higher notes at the end.
“Take It to the Limit” hit no. 4 on the pop charts in 1976, and because of the drama in those high notes, the band often built toward it as a peak of their live shows. But pretty soon there was a problem. Randy Meisner didn't want to sing "Take It To the Limit" anymore.
He was so stressed he got stomach ulcers, and he could have picked half a dozen reasons. His marriage was falling apart. He drank too much. The Eagles were constantly on the road, and his bandmates Don Henley and Glenn Frey had egos the size of Hindenburgs. Meisner liked hanging in the back and playing bass. He didn’t want the spotlight that “Take It to the Limit” required. And as he sang it night after night, he was no longer sure of himself when it came to those notes at the end. "I was kind of scared, basically," he said in the "History of the Eagles" documentary. "What if I didn't hit it right?"
And so he would pull "Take It To the Limit" from the set list. This frustrated the other band members and infuriated Frey, who sang "Take It Easy" and "Peaceful Easy Feeling" every night whether he wanted to or not. He would rage at Meisner about "Take It To the Limit." Thousands of people bought tickets to hear that song, he'd say. And you're not going to sing it?
One night in 1977, near the end of the long HOTEL CALIFORNIA tour, the Eagles played a show in Knoxville. They did an encore and the crowd begged for another. The obvious song to do next was "Take It To the Limit." But backstage, Meisner said no — besides all the normal stress, he had the flu. Frey tried to talk him into it. Meisner refused again. In some versions of the story, Frey said “Fuck you”; in others, Frey called him a pussy. They took swings at each other. Frey hit Meisner with his sweat-soaked towel.
They did not do "Take It To the Limit."
And when the tour was over, Meisner quit the Eagles.
One of the tributes after Etta James died in 2012, from the British newspaper the Independent, begins with a remarkable clause: If Etta James's life had not been weighed down with personal problems, mostly bad management, ghastly lovers, obesity, incarceration and heroin addiction ...
Yeah, that's a lot.
She was born to a teenage black mother and a white father she never knew. She believed her father was the famous pool hustler Minnesota Fats. Etta started singing gospel when she was five. From the time she was a child she had a big voice. One of her early music teachers set out to make it bigger. He did this by punching her in the chest as she sang.
When she was 14, she met the singer Johnny Otis, who is a documentary in himself -- the son of Greek immigrants who was mistaken for black so often that he decided to live his life as a black man. He was one of the key figures in '50s R&B and rock 'n' roll. When he met Etta James, he was trying to write an answer record to Hank Ballard's big hit "Work With Me, Annie." Otis had James record a response called "Dance With Me, Henry" (sometimes called "The Wallflower"). The title was changed from "Roll With Me, Henry" to avoid censorship. Apparently the censors never listened to the lyrics:
While the cats are ballin’
You better stop your stallin’
It’s intermission in a minute
So you better get with it
It was a huge R&B hit in 1955 and launched a career that never quite reached the heights it should have. “At Last” is a perfect R&B ballad. “I’d Rather Go Blind” is required by law to be on the setlist for any blues cover band. But James was musically restless. She wandered into rock and jazz and gospel. She became one of those musicians stuck on the club circuit — not a big enough star to sell a lot of records, but big enough to make money on the road.
The road is hard. By her mid-20s she was addicted to heroin. After 10 years or so of addiction she ended up in a psychiatric hospital. The rest of her life was a series of peaks and crashes. She was the opening act for the Stones in ‘78. She got hooked on pills and ended up at the Betty Ford Clinic. She won her first Grammy for her album of Billie Holiday covers. She gained a lot of weight. She won two more Grammys for blues albums. She got mad when Beyoncé (who played her in the movie “Cadillac Records”) sang “At Last” at President Obama’s inauguration.
In the middle of all of that, after the Stones and before Betty Ford, she played a San Francisco club called the Boarding House in 1981. That show became the album that landed in my mailbox in 1994. I can’t find any clear reason why it took 13 years to come out, other than (Lebowski voice) that’s the record business, man.
James had already cut a studio version of “Take It to the Limit” for her 1978 album DEEP IN THE NIGHT. You can hear the bones of the live version, especially in that gospel piano. But the studio version had horns and a bunch of backup singers and a faster tempo. It felt bouncy. Nothing about “Take It to the Limit” should be bouncy.
On the live version, time slows down. James pauses in the middle of just about every line: When the bright lights have faded … to blue. She’s got the crowd from the start. In the little space before she kicks into the second verse, somebody out there screams with joy.
She doesn’t sing the chorus alone. There’s a second voice running in and out, sometimes repeating James’ lines behind her, sometimes harmonizing with her. The liner notes aren’t clear but I believe this is her keyboard player, a guy named Bobby (Robert) Martin, who has one of those surreal show-business lives: horn player on a ton of Philly soul records from the ‘70s, singer and keyboardist for Frank Zappa (!), one-time fiancé of Cybill Shepherd (!!). He’s a first-teamer on the Bobby Caldwell All-Stars, as in, “That guy is white?” We could probably stop here and write 10,000 words on Bobby Martin.
I don’t know all of Bobby Martin’s work, but I’d be surprised if he ever did anything as great as his backing vocal on “Take It to the Limit.” Especially the last two minutes. He and James land on the closing line: Take it … to the limit … one more time. The first time they sing it together. The second time they do call-and-response. The third time they ditch the lyrics and James grunts and growls and hollers, way down at the bottom of her register. Martin throws every grunt and growl and holler right back at her. They’re in that place where the God and sex and joy and blues swirl together into something beyond words and almost beyond music. They’re under control — these are two professionals — but they make it sound out of control, like it’s the last song of the last show on earth, like they know exactly what it means to take it to the limit and they have dragged the rest of us to the edge.
James lands the closing line one last time, the band hits four notes and a breakdown, and there’s nothing to do but sit back and wonder where the hell it came from. Nobody ever made the Eagles sound like THAT.
Around the time James was playing that set in San Francisco, Randy Meisner’s biggest solo hit, “Hearts on Fire,” inched into the top 20. He started or joined several bands that you probably have not heard of over the next 10 or 12 years. He is still alive. He’s fought alcohol and drug addictions. He almost choked to death on a piece of food. His wife shot and killed herself in what police ruled was an accident.
The Eagles broke up in 1980 but reunited in 1994. They did not invite Meisner back. Glenn Frey sang “Take It to the Limit” for a while, although his voice wasn’t suited for it. Now Vince Gill has joined the band. Gill is a hell of a singer — he made some great country records in the ‘90s — and his natural voice is up in that range. But these days he can’t hit the notes quite as high as Randy Meisner did, or quite as strong.
“Take It to the Limit” can mean lots of things, as most lyrics do. What I hear is the story of someone who has never found happiness except in the search for the next thing — the next gig, the next lover, the next high. Randy Meisner and Etta James had a lot in common — addiction, sickness, bitterness at the music business. But they came at it from opposite directions. One of them had too much success, the other not enough. One walked away, the other never could.
Randy Meisner sang high because that was his range. But he also sang from a high perch, as a member of one of the most successful bands in the world. He sounds like he wants to float away.
Etta James sounds like she wants to fight. That was the life her music gave her. She took the song Randy Meisner couldn’t sing anymore and made a masterpiece out of it by digging down to the root. Where he went high, she went low.
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