Prison has an oddly mythical status in the world of the blues. More than a few blues classics tell heartbreaking (and sometimes comical) tales of protagonists who wind up in the big house. Other blues songs are performed by artists who themselves had done actual time. But few songs had their origin in prison.
Etta James’s career as an earthy crooner of R&B songs was well underway by the late sixties. But visits to her incarcerated friend, songwriter Ellington Jordan would lead to her most enduring hit song, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind.’
According to her autobiography, she heard early drafts of the song Jordan began and the two would later complete it. The heartbreaking ballad would soon be committed to wax at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and included on the album Tell Mama.
The track was originally deemed worthy only of a spot as the B-side of the album’s title track. It was only a modest hit, reaching number ten on the R&B charts and stalling out at number 23 on the pop charts. But time and a plethora of covers have been kind to the song’s legacy. And in recent years, ‘Id Rather Go Blind’ combined with the rollicking A-side would be regarded as one of the greatest double-sided records in pop music history. Clearly Etta’s collaboration with her jailed friend was a gem.
Jimmy’s Blues or Etta’s?
But depending on the source, the composer credit for ‘Blind’ may tell a slightly different tale. The classic was originally credited to Ellington Jordan and Billy Foster. What happened to Etta’s contribution? Blame the IRS.
In her self-penned story Rage to Survive, the bluesy songstress claims to have given her credit to her partner Billy Foster for tax purposes. In later years, her name has been added as a writer along with Ellington Jordan and Billy Foster (regardless of how much Foster actually contributed to the song).
This Etta James Classic combines the best of polished sixties soul and gritty blues.
Of course, the song’s true elegance comes alive only with a scorcher of a voice, and in Etta James, it found the right voice. Her powerhouse alto is mostly restrained here, but she doesn’t need to scream to deliver the blues. With understated anguish, she rattles the listener to the core.
Regardless of whose name actually appears on the composer credits of “I’d Rather Go Blind,” the song belongs unmistakably to Etta James.
I'd Rather Go Blind Lyrics
Something told me it was over
When I saw you and her talking,
Something deep down in my soul said, "cry girl"´,
When I saw you and that girl, walking out.
Ooo I would rather, I would rather go blind boy,
Than to see you, walk away from me child, and all
Ooooo so you see, I love you so much
That I don't want to watch you leave me baby,
Most of all, I just don't, I just don't want to be free no
Ooo I was just, I was just, I was just sitting here thinking
Of your kiss and your warm embrace, yeah,
When the reflection in the glass that I held to my lips, now baby,
Revealed the tears that was on my face, yeah.
Ooo and baby, baby, I would rather, I would rather be blind boy
Than to see you walk away, see you walk away from me, yeah
Ooo baby, baby, baby, I'd rather be blind now
But as time went by, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind belonged to many others too. An army of legendary singers supplied memorable renditions. Clarance Carter, Rod Stewart, Koko Taylor, Little Milton and others all added to the rich tapestry of the song’s legacy.
Perhaps the most urgent and faithful of all covers of Etta’s classic belongs to Beth Hart. Ably assisted by Joe Bonamassa on guitar, Beth reaches deep into her soul to find a breathtaking sense of sadness that hasn’t been reached since Etta’s original.