Radio Hits One: Flo Rida's Accidental Posthumous Tribute To Etta James

The late Etta James remained an active recording artist right up to the end, releasing her final album, The Dreamer, just two months before her death on January 20. But she hadn't been on a Billboard singles chart since the '70s, when a cover of Erma Franklin's "Piece of My Heart" from her 1978 comeback album Deep In The Night grazed the R&B chart at No. 93. So it feels remarkable, if not astronomically coincidental, that the biggest chart hit to feature James's voice peaked on the Hot 100 the week of her death.

Last year, Swedish dance music producer Avicii sampled a few a cappella patches of James's performance on the 1962 single "Something's Got A Hold On Me," which peaked at No. 4 on the R&B charts and No. 37 on the Hot 100 almost a full half century earlier. The resulting track, "Levels," topped the charts in several European countries, including Avicii's homeland. And soon enough, Avicii was in the studio with the King Midas of American pop radio, Dr. Luke, co-producing a single for Miami rapper Flo Rida based largely on "Levels" and its central sample. "Good Feeling" had been lurking in or just outside the U.S. top 10 for the last couple months of 2010, and had reached a peak of No. 3 the week Etta James passed away (it stayed there the week after, and dropped to No. 4 last week). Meanwhile "Levels" has enjoyed its own parallel Stateside success, topping the Hot Dance Club Songs chart and reaching No. 62 on the Hot 100.

What's striking about all this is how spontaneously it all happened. It's often said that death is a great career move for musicians, and countless artists have had songs race up the charts immediately after their passing, sometimes producing a bigger hit than they ever enjoyed in their own lifetime. The classic example is Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay," which was released a month after his 1967 death and within weeks became his first No. 1 pop hit. But then, sometimes hit songs coincide eerily with the artist's passing, like John Lennon's 1980 comeback single "(Just Like) Starting Over," which was already at No. 3 on the Hot 100, making it his biggest hit in nearly a decade even before his death propelled the song to the top of the charts all over the world. It's possible that Avicii and Flo Rida knew what they were doing and to some extent anticipated the possibility of James passing away while their songs were out—last year she turned 73 and was diagnosed with leukemia, and false reports of her death had circulated online as long ago as August.

James isn't the only recently deceased legend to have wound up in the top 10 via a sample in the last couple months. Gil Scott-Heron popped up on the Drake/Rihanna song "Take Care" in the form of a sample from "Take Care" co-producer Jamie xx's remix of a song from Scott-Heron's final album, 2010's I'm New Here. Scott-Heron was also sampled on Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, several months before his death. But then, he'd been sampled on countless hip-hop records before that—including West's 2005 album Late Registration, which also featured a sample of Etta James. West has long been one of hip-hop's most famous practitioners of the art of sampling, and in the last year alone has charted hits with Jay-Z that featured the voices of deceased legends Otis Redding and James Brown.

Last year, Lady Gaga drafted longtime Bruce Springsteen sideman Clarence Clemons to play saxophone on two songs from Born This Way. One of the tracks, "The Edge of Glory," became Clemons's first appearance on a top-ten hit since Springsteen's '80s hitmaking heyday, but the beloved saxman suffered a stroke within days of shooting the song's video and died soon after. Static Major, an R&B singer and producer who helped write some of Aaliyah and Timbaland's biggest hits, was just getting his solo career off the ground in 2008 when he died during a surgical procedure. He was only 33 years old, but what makes the story truly bittersweet is that he'd just recorded a song with Lil Wayne and shot the video for what had already been ordained the lead single from Tha Carter III. Within a couple weeks of his death, "Lollipop" was released and became a huge, multi-platinum smash.

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