Before I photographed Etta James for the first time in 1975, I hadn't heard one song of hers. There
was just one detail I had read somewhere: Janis Joplin used to hang out in her dressing room before she started her own career. As Janis was one of my favorite singers, I wouldn't miss the chance to
hear the original.
First time in MontreuxIn 1975 Etta James was relaunching her career at the age of 37, and on July 11 she had her first appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, with renowned Jazz musicians, John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) on bass and a completely new name on guitar: Brian Ray. – Janis had died almost six years before that, at the age of 27.
The soundcheck for the Etta James Band was scheduled in the afternoon before the show. At that
time the Montreux Jazz Festival was a pretty relaxed place for registered photographers to work. We almost always had access to the soundchecks. This was my chance to get a first impression of Etta's performance. During soundcheck you also see the lineup of the band, the singer's behavior on stage, and her main position.
Where photographers do their homework
This knowledge is crucial for a photographer and has a major impact on the quality of his pictures, especially for a young photographer like me. 1975 was my first time in Montreux as a photographer. I was 22 years old, and a dream had come true. But that's another story.
A very young musical directorAfter a few minutes of the soundcheck, it was obvious that Etta James would give her debut with brilliant musicians. Among them was a guitarist who looked like the perfect antithesis of Etta: slim appearance, white hair, white skin – almost transparent. And he was by far the youngest member of the band. Even more surprising, watching the speechless communication inside the band, it was clear to me: Brian Ray was Etta James' musical director. The ingredients for the show were intriguing and promising.
Discovering new music is sometimes like falling in love. That's what happened to me that night. Etta's voice and performance, her songs – she almost instantly put a spell on the audience. Even today I can recall the feelings I had 40 years ago. Still, I cannot find words to describe them. A picture tells more than a thousand words – this saying is not always true, but definitely for this concert.
Recently I had the chance to talk with Brian Ray on Twitter. What he told me makes the story even better. Brian was 20 years old back then, living in California. He flew with Etta and her boyfriend to Switzerland. The
other musicians had been recruited by Claude Nobs, the legendary Festival Director, and Brian met his bandmates for the first time just one day before the show. What a challenge, what an achievement! "Etta and I were years apart in age. But that night in 1975, we were equally new. New to Europe and
to the Festival in Montreux."
Brian Ray tells the whole story
For Brian Ray, this was perhaps "the single most important show of my whole career. For some reason, the energy, the mystery of meeting iconic players and directing them at an age when I doubted I could fill the shoes. Going to dinner with Led Zeppelin the night before the show. Feeling the love of the audience. Wow. Then Rory Gallagher invited me up for his encore on "What'd I Say," and the crowd chanted MY name – too much!"
A dinner with Led Zeppelin
This concert put Etta James and Brian Ray on the European map and is among the most memorable nights in the history of the Festival.
Two years later Etta and Brian were back in Montreux. After soundcheck I gave Etta my favorite picture of her, which I had shot in 1975. On the backside of the print was my dedication: "The concert I will never forget." Etta gave me the biggest hug I have ever received. With her appearance in 1977, she enchanted Montreux right off again, me included.
But there is no bigger feeling than falling in love.
A present for Etta
Brian Ray was Etta's musical director for 14 years. During this collaboration he started his own songwriting, and in 2006 he released his first album, Mondo Magneto. He also worked with other artists like Peter Frampton, Rita Coolidge, and Smokey Robinson. Today Brian is a member of Paul McCartney's band and has been for 14 years now, playing guitar and bass(!). You find him on numerous live albums and DVDs, along with three of Paul McCartney's recent studio albums.
Brian Ray joins the McCartney Band
Recently I started to save my negatives for the digital age. By this occasion I found two pictures of Etta I hadn't used before – not even printed in 1977. While taking pictures I photograph what I see, by intuition. Photographing is a special state of mind, as I described earlier in MY BLOG.
Revisiting the negatives
Editing my pictures is much more rational: What is really on the picture? What does it say? I need an emotional distance to make a good choice. The pictures I had selected in 1977 show Etta powerful, passionate, seducing the audience.
A different view
A few pictures I discovered only 40 years later show her in a very different mood: sad and lost during her performance, as if she were completely alone. Back then I didn't understand what I had captured. Only years later, after reading her biography Rage to Survive, I got some clues about her life, her addiction. Now these pictures reveal someting for me. At times you are photographing what you
are trying to understand. And yes, some pictures need a few words.