Pat Colwell and the Soul Sensations from left are David “Tib” Thibodeau, Julie Ouellette, Dave Wakefield, Robin Worthley, Pat Colwell, Ronnie Bouffard, Larissa Smith, and Parker Kenyon.

Those of you who like the basics and the roots of modern music please take note: when it comes to R&B and soul and blues, the name Etta James stands out, and for good reason … many feel that she was the queen of R&B. Born in 1938 and passing away nine years ago, the influential singer, Jamesetta Hawkins was her birth name, left a large legacy of music that crossed over many genres and inspired many artists, including Maine’s own Pat Colwell. The former state politician is currently the guitarist-singer-songwriter and front man of the Soul Sensations, a group that will be performing once more at the Somerset Abbey in Madison on Sept. 18. In a recent telephone interview from his home in Bath, we reconnected for the first time since the pandemic, and I asked him to talk a little about that upcoming concert.

Colwell: It’s a tribute to the musical genius of Etta James, the queen of R&B, really. It’s called “Etta, At Last!” and we actually debuted it two-and-a-half years ago on Valentine’s Day at Johnson Hall. It was received extremely well and we’ve done it a couple of other times since. But in this season, we’re actually going to be doing it three times: on Sept. 11th we’ll be in Freeport, and then on the 18th we’re up in Madison at Somerset Abbey, which we just love. I think that show is going to be outdoors in a big, giant tent to alleviate the social distancing aspect of the pandemic, and then we’re going to do it again next Valentine’s Day at the UUC’s “Concerts for a Cause” in Brunswick.

Q: So it seems to be getting some good feedback from concert goers.
Colwell: It just gets great response. Her music is timeless and we do all of her big hits — “Tell Mama,” “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” “At Last,” “Sunday Kind of Love” — and then we do a deeper dive into some of the blues like “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” She covered a lot of great songwriters so we even get into some of the stuff where she covered Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” and of course we do “I’d Rather Go Blind,” you have to do that. But our women are just such great singers so I like to say that Etta James’ talent was so huge that we’ve had to do her show with two women to make up for her huge talent (chuckle)!

Q: And they are…?
Colwell: Larissa Smith and Julie Ouellette, they’re just wonderful singers and they just kill the Etta stuff, it’s fabulous, yeah.

Q: And they’re backed by your band.
Colwell: My band is made up of the great Robin Worthley on keyboards, who has played with everybody from B.B. King to the guys down in New Orleans — he’s a monster. My band is just full of studio musicians like Dave Thibodeau, “Tib,” and Ronnie Boufard who was a professor of drums at one time at UMA. And then my horn section — Dave Wakefield and another hot player that I brought up from down in the Tampa area, Mike Abbott, is with us … I just love it (laughter) — it’s awesome. And then a guy named Pat Colwell on guitar.

Q: (Laughter) Oh, I think I might have heard of him before! Now you said that you’re going to perform all of her big hits, but what kind of criteria did you have for going into the deeper cuts?
Colwell: Well, she has so much material but really the songs that kind of struck my fancy. Early on she had a bunch of songs that were big R&B hits that didn’t cross over but she did a duet with this guy called Harvey Fucqua, who is a legend, he ended up being Marvin Gaye’s producer at Motown, and we do that one: “If I Can’t Have You.” And then, of course, the great Jimmy Reed song, “You Got Me Running You Got Me Hiding.” I wanted to show the influence that she had, also, on people like Janis Joplin — I saw Janis a number of times and she always made a point of doing Etta James’ great hit, “Tell Mama,” in her live shows, so I thought we’d return the favor: in a later album, Etta did an incredible version of “Take Another Piece of My Heart”…

Q: Oh, wow, I didn’t know that she ever did that!
Colwell: Yeah and it’s really incredible, so we cover that. We’re trying to do a little bit of history here and also just make sure that people understand what a huge and wonderful talent that Etta James was. She made 25 records throughout her career and won four Grammys, which is kind of incredible, and of course her later work, which we do cover some of it, was primarily blues, that was at the end of her life.

Q: Can you talk a little more about the show?
Colwell: Well, it’s primarily her music but we also mix in some of our own Motown/Memphis soul favorites to just kind of show how she influenced the people in the soul/R&B field; so we do mix in some stuff from Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett and stuff like that into the show, as well, to show the huge influence she had on black music and R&B.

Q: Just out of curiosity, do you have a new album in the works?
Colwell: Well, I’ve written a bunch of new songs and the album will probably be released for Christmas, I suspect in November, and it’s called “Little Bit of Fun.”

Q: What’s it going to be like?
Colwell: (Laughter) Well, I’m still stuck in that whole Motown/Memphis soul scene from the 1960s and into the Stax Records of the 70s, and so it just owes a lot to that scene, but it does have our own modern interpretation of a lot of those great songs. And it’s a little bit of fun (chuckle)!

Q: Is there anything, Pat, that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article about the show you’ll be bringing up to Somerset Abbey on the 18th?
Colwell: Well, I hope the people up there in the North Country really come out and see this show and support Somerset Abbey and Maine music because it’s been a hard go over the last year-and-a-half for venues as well as musicians, and we have a gem, both in the show but also in the Somerset Abbey. It’s just a fabulous place and it really has put Madison on the map as a music venue. Musicians all over want to play there because it is such a great place. (www.soul-sensations.com)

Lucky Clark has spent more than 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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