Friday, January 20, 2012

Good-bye, Etta James

I'm reposting this because a nice lady died. This is way back from when my blog was a baby (November 2008) . . .

I was a hostess at a Chinese restaurant my senior year in high school that, in its heyday twenty years before, used to get a lot of celebrity customers. There were pictures of the owner with Jack Lemmon and Bill Clinton and a bunch of other famous people all over the walls of the entrance.

My job was easy. Eat as many fortune cookies as I wanted and consume gallons of free Sprite every night. Oh, and seat people. You got five people? You get a five seat table. You got two people? You get a two seat table. It worked pretty well and whoever thought of that system should have gotten a raise or maybe free steamed rice plus free fortune cookies.

Except there was one time it didn't work, and it was this lady and her two sons who came in and always wanted a five people table. But there were only THREE of them. She was a pretty lady (large, though--she didn't back away from the egg rolls), light-skinned black, what the old folks call cafe au lait. I would always gently suggest a smaller table (I don't know why because they always came mid-week when it wasn't busy anyway but I'm uptight like that, shut up), but they just smiled and took their same table they always did.

One night when they were leaving, the lady says, "I'll bring you one of my pictures to put on your wall of fame," and I smiled blankly and nodded, anxious not to disturb the crazy lady, because why would I put her picture on the wall when she didn't even understand about five people tables? I think she saw through it, though, because the next week when she came, she said, "You watching President Clinton's inauguration?" (This was the first one, because I'm old.)

And I said, "Yes" because I had Bush vs. Dukakis debates in middle school for fun (because I'm old), so of course I was watching the inauguration. 

She said, "Okay, well, look for me, because I'm singing."

I said, all perkily, "Oh, are you in a choir?" because that's why any large black lady would be singing at the inauguration, right? (I'm so embarrassed by that question now).

She said, "You just watch on Friday night and you'll see me sing."

I rushed home after my shift that night and made my dad turn off Star Trek and switch it to the inaugural coverage. I said one of our customers was going to be singing that night, maybe in a gospel choir. We watched for about a half an hour, and then, the lights went low, a single spotlight came on and lit up my customer in a magnificent white gown as the emcee announced..."Etta James!"

Aaaagh! I knew who Etta James was. I just didn't know that's who was sitting at my table once a week, who I'd been trying to move to another table every time. And you may think you don't know Etta James, but you do. Oh, yes, you do. Beyonce is playing her in a movie coming out soon.

Check out the clip below (just wait for the first two words of the song. You definitely know it).

Etta Freaking James!

After that, it was, "Hey, Ms. James. It's good to see you, Ms. James. Why don't you come sit at the five people table, Ms. James?"

Coolest celebrity sighting EVER. 


Luisa Perkins said...

That is AWESOME.

I remember her singing at that inauguration. Because I'm even older than you are.

And when I was a hostess at the now-defunct Orem Marie Callender's? My two biggest celebrity seatings were Jimmy Osmond and then-BYU-President Jeff Holland.

As much as I adore Elder Holland, your story is way better.

Barbaloot said...

Sometimes I get the names Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald mixed up. But just the names. Swear it. Wasn't Ms. James a little put out when Beyonce sang 'At Last' at the Obama inauguration?

Also, I totally would have tried to give her a 3 people table.

Jami said...

Great story! What a classy way to clear up your confusion.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Nice tribute, Melanie. Etta had fabulous eyes (to say nothing of that voice!).

L.T. Elliot said...

That's pretty awesome! To me, it says a lot about her character about how she downplayed that. Some people would be offended or haughty or any number of attitudes and I like her better for being classy.

Her talent was amazing. She'll very much be missed.

Karen Peterson said...

That is so awesome. And it's nice to know that she was nice and friendly and not a diva.

She will be missed.

wendy said...

wow...that is sooooo very cool. Funny that you were having all these moments with her, and yet didn't know who she was.

I bet you kept winning employee of the month with the whole sticking to the 5-table rule
except for Etta
sad to see these legends leave us

Charlotte said...

Greatest celebrity story EVER. Reminds me of the commercials where the famous people are giving advice on their specialty and the person has no idea who they are and blow them off.