The late Etta James remained an active recording artist right up to the end, releasing her final album, The Dreamer, just two months before her death on January 20. But she hadn’t been on a Billboard singles chart since the ’70s, when a cover of Erma Franklin’s “Piece of My Heart” from her 1978 comeback album Deep In The Night grazed the R&B chart at No. 93. So it feels remarkable, if not astronomically coincidental, that the biggest chart hit to feature James’s voice peaked on the Hot 100 the week of her death.
Last year, Swedish dance music producer Avicii sampled a few a cappella patches of James’s performance on the 1962 single “Something’s Got A Hold On Me,” which peaked at No. 4 on the R&B charts and No. 37 on the Hot 100 almost a full half century earlier. The resulting track, “Levels,” topped the charts in several European countries, including Avicii’s homeland. And soon enough, Avicii was in the studio with the King Midas of American pop radio, Dr. Luke, co-producing a single for Miami rapper Flo Rida based largely on “Levels” and its central sample. “Good Feeling” had been lurking in or just outside the U.S. top 10 for the last couple months of 2010, and had reached a peak of No. 3 the week Etta James passed away (it stayed there the week after, and dropped to No. 4 last week). Meanwhile “Levels” has enjoyed its own parallel Stateside success, topping the Hot Dance Club Songs chart and reaching No. 62 on the Hot 100.
What’s striking about all this is how spontaneously it all happened. It’s often said that death is a great career move for musicians, and countless artists have had songs race up the charts immediately after their passing, sometimes producing a bigger hit than they ever enjoyed in their own lifetime. The classic example is Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay,” which was released a month after his 1967 death and within weeks became his first No. 1 pop hit. But then, sometimes hit songs coincide eerily with the artist’s passing, like John Lennon’s 1980 comeback single “(Just Like) Starting Over,” which was already at No. 3 on the Hot 100, making it his biggest hit in nearly a decade even before his death propelled the song to the top of the charts all over the world. It’s possible that Avicii and Flo Rida knew what they were doing and to some extent anticipated the possibility of James passing away while their songs were out—last year she turned 73 and was diagnosed with leukemia, and false reports of her death had circulated online as long ago as August.
James isn’t the only recently deceased legend to have wound up in the top 10 via a sample in the last couple months. Gil Scott-Heron popped up on the Drake/Rihanna song “Take Care” in the form of a sample from “Take Care” co-producer Jamie xx’s remix of a song from Scott-Heron’s final album, 2010’s I’m New Here. Scott-Heron was also sampled on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, several months before his death. But then, he’d been sampled on countless hip-hop records before that—including West’s 2005 album Late Registration, which also featured a sample of Etta James. West has long been one of hip-hop’s most famous practitioners of the art of sampling, and in the last year alone has charted hits with Jay-Z that featured the voices of deceased legends Otis Redding and James Brown.
Last year, Lady Gaga drafted longtime Bruce Springsteen sideman Clarence Clemons to play saxophone on two songs from Born This Way. One of the tracks, “The Edge of Glory,” became Clemons’s first appearance on a top-ten hit since Springsteen’s ’80s hitmaking heyday, but the beloved saxman suffered a stroke within days of shooting the song’s video and died soon after. Static Major, an R&B singer and producer who helped write some of Aaliyah and Timbaland’s biggest hits, was just getting his solo career off the ground in 2008 when he died during a surgical procedure. He was only 33 years old, but what makes the story truly bittersweet is that he’d just recorded a song with Lil Wayne and shot the video for what had already been ordained the lead single from Tha Carter III. Within a couple weeks of his death, “Lollipop” was released and became a huge, multi-platinum smash.
There’s something bittersweet about James’s vicarious chart triumph, too. Although she enjoyed a run of dozens of R&B hits stretching back to 1955, she never experienced much crossover success; her highest Hot 100 peak was No. 23, for 1967’s “Tell Mama,” while her most enduring song, 1961’s “At Last,” only climbed to No. 47. The man who took her voice to greater Billboard heights than she’d ever achieved herself, Flo Rida, has had almost the opposite kind of career: He’s a hugely successful crossover artist with little presence on the R&B charts. “Good Feeling” is Flo’s sixth track to make the Hot 100’s top 10, while only one of those songs, his 2007 debut “Low,” made its way into the top 50 of Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, the modern-day incarnation of the R&B chart where James was once a fixture.
Flo Rida may actually be the most faceless hitmaker in modern pop: you may be able to recognize his voice, but it’s never really seemed to be the component that made any of his top 10 hits popular. “Low” featured the then-ubiquitous T-Pain, while “In The Ayer” was manned by will.i.am of the inescapable Black Eyed Peas. “Right Round” featured the soon-to-be-huge Ke$ha interpolating an earworm hook from an ’80s Dead Or Alive hit, while “Sugar” got by with a cheesy sample of Eiffel 65’s deathless Europop smash “Blue (Da Ba Dee).” And “The Club Can’t Handle Me” featured the increasingly familiar bouncy dance-pop of superstar DJ David Guetta, as well as a chorus sung by some unidentified female singer. (Flo Rida never seems to perform his own choruses, or even say anything particularly memorable in his verses.) Sure, if Etta James’s voice was the only thing making “Good Feeling” a hit, then “Levels” would have been just as big, to say nothing of James’s own songs. But one gets the impression that pretty much any other major-label rapper could have made the song and it would’ve done just as well.
There are a lot of rappers operating in Flo Rida’s wheelhouse at the moment. I’ve written in this space a few times about the increasing rarity of crossover between urban radio and the pop charts; one of the biggest factors in that widening gap is that pop radio now has its own constellation of rappers who it treats as stars that are virtually ignored by urban stations. Many of them, like Flo Rida, started out on a more traditional mainstream hip-hop career track (the first time I heard him was on a DJ Khaled album). But more and more hip-hop acts, after getting a taste of fame, make the most shameless crossover moves possible to stay in the spotlight: B.o.B, Pitbull, and most recently the New Boyz and, in his own conflicted, passive-aggressive way, Lupe Fiasco. Meanwhile, there’s a whole other group of pop rappers regularly visiting the Top 40 who’ve never had any kind of urban radio presence, including LMFAO and the Gym Class Heroes. In the cases of Flo Rida and Pitbull, who both have Miami bass roots, the move to embrace dance pop is something of a natural aesthetic decision beyond commercial motivations, but their career arcs still display an almost undeniable streak of cynical opportunism. It says something about the state of hip-hop’s role in chart pop that one of the most ubiquitous MCs on urban radio the last couple of years, Rick Ross, has only one top 10 hit to his name (and just a supporting role, on DJ Khaled’s “I’m On One”), while Flo Rida has six. I don’t know anybody who’d say Flo Rida is more popular than Rick Ross.
A few days before James passed away, American Idol aired its season premiere, which featured an audition by a young woman who sang “Something’s Got A Hold On Me.” The morning after the episode, a local morning radio show recapped the episode; after that clip, one DJ exclaimed “Oh, I know that song! That’s Flo Rida!” One of the other DJs quickly corrected him. But later that week when news of James’s death came across the wires, I instantly thought back to that moment, and I wondered whether her presence on a huge hit right then was an appropriate tribute to her legacy and influence, or whether there was something a bit depressing about her becoming the ghost in Flo Rida’s Miami sound machine.