Singers take on Etta James' catalog

Staff reports

The great Etta James has been ranked by Rolling Stone magazine as 22nd among its list of the 100 greatest singers of all time. As a measure of her talent, she’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame and twice into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Her reputation is pretty intimidating to tribute artists, but two of Western North Carolina's powerhouse divas, Peggy Ratusz and Paula Hanke, will take it on by saluting her music at White Horse Black Mountain on Nov. 18. Notably, White Horse is owned by Bob Hinkle, who served as her manager for a time during the late '70s.

The Etta James catalog includes blues, R&B, rock, soul, jazz and gospel, so it takes a versatile band to do the music justice. Backing up Ratusz and Hanke will be Jim Arendell on drums and vocals, Jonathan Perlman on guitar and vocals, Alex Taub on keyboards and Grant Cuthbertson on bass.

Peggy Ratusz

Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles to a teen mother, Etta James overcame a difficult and painful childhood to become a breakout singing star while still a teenager herself. She had a string of hits in the 1960s that blended blues, jazz and pop on the legendary Chess Records label, with whom she also released her signature song “At Last.” James’ early '70s work ventured into funk and rock, and she’s often regarded as a bridge between rock and soul.

Although she continued to be a popular live act, James never regained the commercial peaks of her '60s output, and she slipped into a period of addiction and personal problems. But she came roaring back in the mid-'80s for a mid-career resurgence, becoming a revered figure in the American popular music pantheon. Public interest was once again piqued by Beyoncé’s portrayal of her in the 2008 movie "Cadillac Records." James’ tempestuous life came to an end in 2012 when she succumbed to leukemia, but her music continues to be inspirational and influential.

A Wisconsin native, Paula Hanke began performing professionally out of high school, and her years of worldwide touring with show bands are evident in her ability to tackle just about any repertoire. She has the rare ability to make each listener feel that they’re being sung to individually as she negotiates material from quietly intimate to roof-raising.

Paula Hanke

Providing the other half of the vocal pyrotechnics, Asheville chanteuse Peggy Ratusz shines in live performance, bringing songs to life with her command of American popular musical styles. In her work with various musical configuration she’s at home with jazz, swing, blues, soul and R&B. She has a special talent for getting to the heart of each song and the hearts of listeners.

 At Last

Who: Paula Hanke, Peggy Ratusz

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 18

Where: White Horse Black Mountain

Cost: $15