Week 119: “At Last” by Etta James

The opening bars of “At Last” are as recognizable as any opening bars to any song. Harry Warren, who wrote it in 1941, was so enamoured with the melody that he would sometimes draw the melody when signing autographs.

Twenty years later, the song itself would become a “signature” for Etta James, whose rendition of Warren’s classic has outlived versions by Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Nat King Cole, Ben E. King, and approximately 8 million others to become the definitive version of the song.

Sports teams often “retire” jerseys of their best players, so that no other player will ever wear a certain number; I often think that the same thing should be done with this song. A staple of movies, weddings, and people who think they can sing well enough to warrant a YouTube channel, nobody will ever do “At Last” better than Etta. Let’s retire it and give it the dignity it deserves.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. James’ voice is powerful without being overly decorative. For some reason, when people cover this song, they feel the need to embellish every note as if they’re singing the national anthem while suffering a bad case of the hiccups. Etta James doesn’t need to embellish.

2. The music fits the lyrics perfectly. The sweeping strings and the slow tempo make it sound like the entire band is breathing a collective sigh of relief.

3. At 2:05, the strings do an unexpected “doo…be-doo…be-doo…be-doo”, that creates the image (in my head, at least) of a happy couple skipping hand-in-hand through a field of tulips. It’s a bit cheesy, but it’s a love song, so it’s allowed.

Recommended listening activity:

Using a tube of toothpaste as a microphone.

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