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Ferndale Guitarist Helps Make Etta James' Sweet Soul Music

Of the Oakland Press

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Bobby Murray still remembers his first phone call from legendary R&B singer Etta James in the late ’80s.

“I picked up the phone and it’s, ‘Hey man, this is Etta James. Are you available for some gigs?’ ” recalls the Japenese-born Murray, 55, who’s been a Ferndale resident since 1996, after meeting his wife at a Fox Theatre show. “I still haven’t gotten over that first phone call. It’s still as much of a kick today as it was the day I got it.”

Murray has been playing guitar with James’ Roots Band since 1988, though his résumé also includes gigs with Charlie Musselwhite, Otis Rush, Jimmy Witherspoon, Taj Mahal, John Lee Hooker and others, as well as a featured spot on B.B. King’s Grammy Award-winning 1993 album, “Blues Summit,” where he joined high school pal Robert Cray on King’s “Playing With My Friends.”

Murray has also released three albums of his own and leads a band in the Detroit metro area. But playing with James, who was immortalized by her 1961 version of “At Last,” is his “dream come true.”

“I’ve had the privilege of working with some wonderful singers, but Etta’s really exceptional,” says Murray. “What she does with a song is so remarkable, and she’s got great stories and has seen so much from different eras. She was kind of around for the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, and she’s seen a lot of the jazz world, too.

“She’s a cool lady. I think the world of her. And over the years it’s become a real familial thing; her oldest son was the best man at my wedding.”

Murray adds that the furor over James’ comments criticizing Beyoncé after the latter performed “At Last” at this year’s presidential inaugural ball was also a bit overblown.

“She wasn’t upset about the movie,” “Cadillac Records,” in which Beyoncé portrayed James, Murray says. “I think she felt overlooked for the inauguration, that she should have been asked to do the song. But what she said was kind of tongue-in-cheek, really — although I got a lot of e-mails afterward!”

Etta James and Bobby Murray & Friends perform at 8 p.m. Friday (May 1) at Sound Board in the MotorCity Casino Hotel, 2901 Grand River Blvd., Detroit. Tickets are $55 and $62. Call (866) 782-9633 or visit www.motorcitycasino.com.

Web Site: www.motorcitycasino.com

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