Husky voiced singer-guitarist Melissa Etheridge, who grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas, likes to say that her voice always had a raspy quality. "I remember my choir teacher used to put me in the back row of the choir because I had such a strange voice," she told us in a 2014 interview.
Her experience in the choir notwithstanding, she originally gravitated toward country music, and when she was a teenager, she cut her musical teeth playing with local country groups. After a short stint at Berklee College of Music, she moved to Los Angeles and hit the coffeehouse circuit. Her 1993 album, Yes I Am
, became a huge hit, and she’s never looked back.
Now, the pop/rock star has turned her attention to the Stax catalog. Her latest effort, Memphis Rock and Soul
, features covers of classic tunes from the days when Stax acts ruled the charts. In a recent phone interview from a tour stop, she talks about each tune on the album. She performs at Hard Rock Live at the Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield Park on Jan. 11.
Oh man, that’s one of the last songs we recorded for the album. I hadn’t had that on my short list of songs. It was so hard to decide which songs because There are so many amazing Stax songs. It was the last day of recording, and we had done all the songs I wanted to do. There were a couple that were thrown out that I thought didn’t work. John Burk, the head of Concord, who was co-producing the album with me, said, “What about this song?” He played Rufus Thomas’s “Memphis Train,” and I could feel that beat. It was awesome. I didn’t have a clue what he was singing about it, but it was cool and fun. We worked up our own arrangement of it. I went in there, and I sang it and played the harmonica and had a blast. It sets the whole album up. I really love it.
“Respect Yourself (People Stand Up)
Sometimes, I’ll record stuff or put something out there and not know how timely it will be in the moment. I’m very grateful for that song. There are two songs that were not done in Memphis. That’s one of them. They are the original masters for “Respect Yourself.” The background singers are the Staple Singers and the band is the Muscle Shoals Swampers. I went in with the utmost honor and respect, so I could rework the perfect song. The song was so important during its time. I called in Priscilla Renea to help me rewrite some of the lyrics and update it. I wanted that thought. The only way we can get respect is if we respect ourselves. We have to now walk through this situation in front of us.
“Who’s Making Love
It’s a Jonny Taylor song from the '70s. it’s a lot faster than I did it, and the lyrics were by Bettye Crutcher. She had written “who’s making love to your old lady while you were out making love.” I thought that if I sang that, I don’t know if people will know what I’m talking about. And it could be a little creepy. I rewrote it. Some of the lyrics were “thinking that a woman is made to be beat on and treated so bad.” I didn’t want to sing that. I reworked the lyrics and slowed it down. Instead of a man cheating on a woman, I made it about anyone cheating on anyone else. I took gender out of it.
“Hold On, I’m Coming”
I have always loved that song. It’s got to be one of my top three songs of all time. When I looked at it, I didn’t know how to do it, and it was a duet. For the longest time, I was going to call someone in to sing it. I just sing the whole thing. With the High Rhythm section, that’s who was with me in Memphis where we recorded everything live, I told them to rock it. I didn’t want to make it too hippie. We did that from the beginning to end. We did not stop. I was really pleased with the horns on it.
“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)
We called in Lester Snell to do strings. He did Shaft
and all of Isaac Hayes’s stuff. That’s one he did. That song, you have to sing it right or go home. That one I love also.
“Any Other Way
That was a song that was a William Bell song from the early ’60s or late'50s that was a lot faster. It was kind of a doo woop-y kind of song. So many of my favorite rock n roll artists would take those songs and rewrite them and make them their own and slow them down. I wanted to do take it and slow it down and make it mine. I did that and it came to the solo and it was last minute and I had my slide guitar so I did that.
“I’m A Lover
“I’m a Lover” was the other song that I had the masters to. The original was a song called “Tramp” by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas where they trade spoken parts back and forth. I loved the beat and the track of the song so much. I took their vocals off and left Otis singing, “Oh, I’m a lover” and rewrote it around that. It’s kind of fun.
“Rock Me Baby
That’s Otis Redding’s version of it. I know B.B. King has a version too. You trace the song back, and there’s no beginning there. John Mayer is playing guitar on it, and it’s a lot of fun.
“I Forgot To Be Your Lover
That’s Lester again with the string arrangements. Michael Toles on the guitar brings a tear to my eye. His playing is so beautiful.
“Wait A Minute
With this song, even the Stax people were like, “What song is this?” Barbara Stephens is the one who did it. It wasn’t even a hit. I loved that early rock ’n’ roll beat to it. The way she sings is just ridiculous. I just had to throw it in.
“Born Under A Bad Sign
Unfortunately and too bad for me, I connect with the song’s theme. It’s become a blues and rock song, and I just wanted to stand up and say, “This is where it came from” with this version of it.
“Dreams To Remember”
That’s Otis Redding again. His talent is about stems from how he goes in and brings gospel to rock ’n’ roll, thus creating soul. It’s just ridiculous. He’s so great at it.
Melissa Etheridge, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 11, Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield Park, 10777 Northfield Rd., (330) 908-7625. Tickets: $42.50-$75, hrrocksinonorthfieldpark.com.