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Alan Walden recalls time with late Etta James

The first time Alan Walden saw Etta James perform live, he and his Mercer University brothers were the only white faces in a nightclub on the border of Bibb and Jones counties in 1962.

It was the first time that Walden, who later was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame as a promoter and booking agent, had ever been to a black nightclub.

“It was even before I had seen Otis (Redding) perform in a black nightclub,” Walden recalled Sunday. “She was very, very friendly to us. She treated us like family. It made me feel terrific.”

James, the legendary blues singer, died Friday at 73 from leukemia.

Little did Walden know during that one night in 1962 that he would briefly serve as James’ booking agent years later or contribute a song that she performed on her final album.

“She was one of those people who stayed true to her roots,” Walden said. “She sang so many songs. She must have 250 songs out there. ... I’m one of the biggest Etta James fans out there. She was my queen of soul music.”

Walden said that for years, when James met someone with Macon connections, she’d say, “Tell Alan I said, ‘Hi.’ ”

Walden worked as Redding’s manager in the early to mid-1960s, and he said Redding and James would often perform at the same venues, such as the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem.

In 1966, James and Walden re-established contact after she went to Muscle Shoals, Ala., to record an album. Soon afterwards, she hired Walden as her booking agent.

But the professional relationship only lasted about a month, Walden said. James struggled with drug addiction for much of her life. Walden said he managed to keep her clean during the span they worked together until a show in Louisiana one night, when James demanded that the manager of the venue get her drugs or else she would refuse to perform.

Walden recalled that the manager was a young man who had no idea what to do and that James abruptly canceled the show.

Walden said he ended the business relationship after that, because he couldn’t risk his own reputation for a performer who didn’t honor her contracts.

“I kept her straight for about 30 days,” said Walden, who added that James performed about four shows per week during that span. “She made every date until the one at the end of the month. ... I would have stayed with her, but you can’t stick your neck out if (a singer) doesn’t show up. She would never be as big as Otis, because he never offended anyone. He would always show up to perform. ... My relationship as her booking agent came to an end, but it was amicable, and we remained friends.”

In the 1970s, James proclaimed herself as “the female Otis Redding” and performed many of the singer’s songs throughout her career, including such classics as “Respect” and “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember.”

In 2011, James released what would be her final album, “The Dreamer.” The second song on the disc, “Champagne & Wine,” was co-written by Walden and Redding, and it’s the only song Walden receives royalties for as a songwriter. He said he wrote it just days before Redding’s fatal plane crash in 1967.

“It was basically a rewrite of (‘Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,’ ” Walden said, saying “Champagne & Wine’s” original melody was the same one as “Dock of the Bay.” “I wasn’t a fan of the (‘Dock of the Bay’) lyrics. But Otis was still sold on ‘Dock of a Bay’ and kept the lyrics -- thank goodness. So he (recorded) ‘Champagne’ with a new melody.”

Walden said it’s a huge honor for him to have his song on James’ final album.

“It made me feel good,” Walden said, adding with a chuckle, “I hope to make a few bucks off it.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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