Etta James: Advertising Zombie

It has been 10 years since the passing of the other Queen of Soul – the great Etta James. Thanks to the big wide world of commercials, every year we are treated to a different song from her catalogue permeating our consciousness. Case in point: Google’s current ad campaign featuring her 1967 recording of “Security.”

This trend started in the 1990’s when these commercial placements would spur renewed interest in Etta’s work. She was still active at the time and able to capitalize on this with new records and more live shows and television appearances. The selling power of her recordings has only increased in the decade since she left the building, which is why I have dubbed her an “advertising zombie”. She may be gone, but her recordings are still working overtime on Madison Avenue.

Etta’s fiery voice had been used to sell products dating back to the 1960’s, as evidenced by this 1968 radio commercial for Blizzard Ice Tea:

Here’s the thing: Like most people, I don’t actually watch commercials. I usually have my face in my phone or computer. But I hear them. I have been singing the jingle “Nothing is everything… whoa uh oh whoa oh!” for several years now. I have no idea what they are selling. I assume it’s an antibacterial of some sort.

This is why I appreciate the used of Etta’s catalogue. When I am treated to a 30 second blast of that legendary voice during a commercial break, my ears perk up, even if my eyes do not.

Here are ten Etta James recordings that are most often and/or effectively used in commercials:

1) At Last – The jewel in the crown. When Joni Mitchell covered this song on her 2000 Both Sides Now LP, she said “I first heard this song on a tampon commercial and then again in a Jaguar ad. Funny way to find a masterpiece.” Etta’s omnipresent 1960 recording has been utilized in all manner of advertisement through the years, including Jaguar (1995), Applebees, Hoover, State Farm (2014), Cadillac (2018), and this ad for Guinness:

1996 UK 45 picture sleeve

2) I Just Want To Make Love To You (aka The Diet Coke song) – This one was an integral part of a classic 1996 ad campaign that became something of a cultural touchstone and launched the brief career of Lucky Vanous. Etta’s 1960 recording of the Willie Dixon tune was originally the B-side of her “At Last” single. Due to the popularity of this commercial, the song was re-released as a single, garnering Etta her first top 5 pop hit in the UK.

3) Sunday Kind Of Love – This standard dates back to the 1940’s with a version by co-songwriter Louis Prima and his Orchestra. Etta’s take was recorded for her 1960 At Last LP. It has been used in films (The Other Woman), television (9-1-1), a 2006 Dockers ad campaign and a 2015 commercial for the NFL Network, just to name a few.

4) Tell Mama – The title track of Etta’s classic 1967 LP was also her biggest chart hit in the U.S. Unfortunately, Etta was not a fan of the song. She wrote in her 2003 memoir Rage To Survive:

I have to confess that it was never a favorite of mine. Never liked it. Never liked singing it – not then, not now. I almost never perform it. It’s not that I don’t admire the chart and the songwriter. Clarence Carter is great. Maybe it’s just that I didn’t like being cast in the role of the Great Earth Mother, the gal you come to for comfort and easy sex.

T-Mobile took the title more literally with a series of 2020 commercials featuring actor Kevin Anderson and his mama.

5) I’d Rather Go Blind – The b-side to “Tell Mama” was an original Etta James composition and one of her favorites. A staple of her live act, Etta re-recorded the song several times throughout her career. The original 1967 version has been featured in films (Suicide Squad), television (Ozark, Pretty Little Liars) and a 2012 Kraft Dressing commercial, among others.

6) Good Rockin’ Daddy – Etta was just 17 years old when she recorded this Richard Berry tune in 1955. It was her third single release. This is the only song on the list that is not from her 15 year tenure at Chess/Argo/Cadet records. The song was used in the television show Lovecraft Country and in this 2013 HSBC commercial:

7) Something’s Got A Hold On Me / Good Feeling / Levels – This cash cow came from out of left field. Etta’s 1962 recording was sampled in two monster hit records of 2011: Avicii’s Levels and Good Feeling by Flo Rida. As a co-writer of the original song, she now has songwriting credits on all three. They were each used in multiple commercials for Citi Mobile, LG G6, various cars, a cruise line, you name it.

8) Trust In Me – This standard was originally associated with Mildred Bailey in the 1930s. Etta’s cover is from her 1960 At Last LP and has been used in multiple television shows (Betrayal, Mad Men, Memphis Beat). Commercially, it was used by Simplisafe in 2018 as well as Samsung the following year.

9) I Got You Babe – This non-lp 1968 single – a cover of the Sonny & Cher hit – was used for Wal-Mart’s series of Christmas commercials in 2021. An overlooked gem in Etta’s discography.

10) Security – This season’s Etta song is part of Google’s current ad campaign focusing on … uh… security. Recorded in 1967, this was the first of many Otis Redding-penned tunes that Etta would cover throughout her career. The pair were mutually fond of each other and had agreed to record an album together before he was tragically killed in a plane crash that same year.

The track was featured on Etta’s Tell Mama LP and was the follow up single to the title song. Click here for the Google commercial.

Honorable mentions:

Fire – While Aretha was wailing for “Freedom,” Etta growled about “Fire“. Another song from the pen of Willie Dixon (see #2), Etta’s incendiary take was the b-side of a 1968 single. I remember this being used to sell hot wings a few years ago, but I can’t recall the restaurant. It has also been placed in films (Rush Hour) and television shows (Mrs. America, Hacks). UPDATE: Now featured in the 2022 Infinity car commercial.

Seven Day Fool – This 1961 single from her Second Time Around LP has been used in several commercials, although I cannot recall the products.

Watch Dog – Another track from Etta’s classic 1967 Tell Mama LP.  Again, I know it has been used in commercials but can’t recall what product. Security systems? Dog food? If readers would like to enlighten me, I will update.

You Can Leave Your Hat On – Etta’s funky 1973 rendition of this Randy Newman tune was used in the film Sex Tape and is a strip club staple.  In terms of selling power, it has been instrumental in getting many dollar bills stuffed into g-strings. That counts for something, right? Yay commerce!

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