Etta James – “Take It to the Limit” | GFM Song of the Day

You know I’ve always been a dreamer
(Spent my life runnin’ round)
And it’s so hard to change
(Can’t seem to settle down)
But the dreams I’ve seen lately
Keep turnin’ out, and burnin’ out,
And turnin’ out the same…

“Take It to the Limit,” The Eagles’ 1975 Top Ten hit about a lonely wanderer who never managed to make much of his life, carried a country tone with a tinge of blues around the edges. Etta connected with this song—perhaps saw herself in it—and began including it in her stage act, eventually recording it in the studio on Deep in the Night in 1978—a year that also found her headlining the Montreal Jazz Festival and touring as opening act for no less than the Rolling Stones.

Though Etta would continue to perform the occasional live concert after 1978, she would largely leave the spotlight for the next ten years, struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction so badly that she would release only one studio album in the following decade.

And when you’re lookin’ for freedom
(Nobody seems to care)
And you can’t find the door
(Can’t find it anywhere)

1981’s Live From San Francisco comes from that rough period, a bootleg recording that, despite all her hardships, shows Etta clearly in full command of her powers. Refusing the trends of the day, she never got involved with disco, funk, or Philly soul, and stayed hard and true to the gritty blues that spoke from deep within.

When Randy Meisner, Glenn Frey, and Don Henley wrote “Take It to the Limit,” surely they could never have imagined just how bluesy it truly was. In a period when she was fighting her own demons for her life, in Etta’s hands these lyrics reached their full potential. When she raises to a full-throated roar on “You know I’ve always been a dreamer,” she sounds practically on the verge of tears, and you know this is a woman who’s been given a raw deal her whole life. She’s had to fight for everything she’s ever gotten, and times have gotten darker than she’ll ever say, but she’s never given up on finding what she deserves. That theme has been the trademark wellspring of tormented soul that’s laced throughout Etta’s entire catalog—right through her final album, 2011’s The Dreamer.

Slowed way down into a dragging church waltz with reverent piano and organ and a call-and-response chorus, Etta reaches in with her bare hands and molds this song into a religious experience—a testament to the determination of the human soul, a sermon on the gospel of regret.

…So put me on the highway
And show me a sign
And take it to the limit
One more time…

 

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