*I was scared to go inside. This was the late 1970s, I was in my 20s, and the only thing that stuck out in my mind regarding Etta James–besides the fact that the woman seemed able to sing everything from soul and jazz to hardcore, low-down blues and rock and roll–was what I’d seen the night before. And what I’d seen was Ms. James pretending to go down on a Shure SM58 microphone.
During her steamrolling set at Hollywood’s Roxy Theater, James sang the roof off the place. Her opening number, “Down Home Blues” moved like a freight train, and she delivered “I’d Rather Go Blind” with all the passion and drama the subject deserved.
But her playful between-song banter regarding relationships and the general rigors of life was bold and rather bawdy. At the time, the idea of interviewing a woman with, shall I say, such a big personality, made me nervous.
So, the next afternoon I sat in my car in the parking garage of the record company where I was meeting with James, trying to find the gumption to go inside.
Once I did, a publicist led me into a conference room where James was sitting at the end of a long table, introduced us and left. The singer, in a colorful one-piece dress, smiled kindly and extended her hand. I took a seat next to her and embarrassingly blurted out the obvious: Miss James, you sure can sing.
“Reallllly? Oh, thank you SO much, baby.” Now, I’m certain James was well aware of her tremendous talent; accolades for her remarkable gift was something she’d heard for most of her life. However, she received my compliment with the tender, expectant zeal of someone who’d never heard this before. Or like someone who may not have always allowed herself to believe the apparent.
Conversation came easy. We began by talking about the album she had out at the time before rambling into areas of food, religion, people. Life. Onstage, James’ style was aggressive, rambunctious. Here, she was meek, almost fragile. Childlike. Her quiet warmth and propensity for laughter put me at ease.
Indeed, the Etta James I met that day was strangely familiar, the kind of women I used to come across in my neighborhood when I was a child. I might have seen her in the bread aisle at Safeway, popping chewing gum and walking fast.
Or I’d coast past her on the sidewalk while on my bike. Or notice her in the principal’s office of every grade school I ever attended, looking anxious and waiting to speak with somebody about her child.
She might have been about mama’s age, this woman, or maybe younger but she was always dressed hipper than my mother. Way hipper. Frosted lipstick and exotic earrings that dangled. During the week, no less. Her smoldering sexuality practically walked alongside her. Were she a teenager, she might have been termed “fast.”
And she was always the nicest lady, this kind of woman. Spoke to everyone, whether they wanted to speak to her. Always hospitable, but somehow preoccupied or pained. This is the woman I saw in Etta James.
During our interview, James referred to a perfunctory version of her professional history that included being born in Los Angeles in January 25, 1938, of being a childhood singing sensation in church and being discovered at 14 by R&B bandleader Johnny Otis (he passed the same week as Etta, at age 90), who suggested Jamesetta Hawkins reverse her first name to Etta James and shepherded her early recording career. Hits in the ’50s and ’60s included “The Wallflower (Dance With Me Henry),” “Good Rockin’ Daddy,” “Tell Mama,” “All I Could Do Was Cry” and “At Last.”
If what James had shared with me about her beginnings had been a movie scene, the camera would then have slowly pulled back to include in the shot some brutal details: being born to a mother who birthed James when she herself was only 14 and let baby James be taken care of by different people, some of whom physically abused her; of a white father she never knew as a child, but who was rumored to be famed pool player Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone; a string of lovers, including blues legend B.B. King, when she was just 16; a revolving door of drug and alcohol abuse and rehab, and recording for a variety of labels beyond the legendary Chess Records that didn’t always “get” her expansive talent. It was either the right songs and the wrong producer, or a capable producer and a label that refused to back her fully. Or all of the above.
We’d talked about an hour and a half before I rose to leave. When I did, she told me she really appreciated my coming on in, pointing to the window. “I saw a fella sittin’ out in his car in the parking lot. I said, ‘I wonder if that’s him.’” We both laughed, for different reasons.
Not surprisingly, the label slept on that album. However, ultimately the tide did turn for Ms. James. There were awards, including six Grammys and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “At Last,” revitalized through its inclusion in product commercials and various movies and TV shows, became to James what “Respect” is to Aretha Franklin. Her two sons, drummer Donto and bassist Sametto, joined their mother’s act in 2003.
Regrettably, the hits, the painful ones, just kept on comin.’ Not being invited to sing “At Last” at the inauguration ball for President and First Lady Obama–passed over for Beyonce, who portrayed James in the film, “Cadillac Records,” which doesn’t get her story right–cut deeply.
Thus, on January 20, 2012, when I heard that Etta James, 73, had lost her battle with leukemia, my first thought was, there goes another great and influential voice that popular music will never be able to replace. Then I considered another truth, this one unselfish: a tired, weary and tortured spirit has found peace. At Last.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].