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Etta James - Etta James

  by Lisa Torem

published: 16 / 2 / 2012

Etta James - Etta James


Lisa Torem looks back and reflects on the career and life of jazz artist Etta James, who died earlier this year

Etta James’ fierce talent was sometimes discovered by accident. Some might have viewed the scene in the film ‘Rain Man’ in which actors Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise danced closely together while her signature song, ‘At Last’, blared powerfully from a radio in the background. Others might have been captivated by a Mercedes-Benz television advertisement – her unique, impassioned vocals burst forth seductively while the sleek machinery glimmered. Did that commercial successfully sell cars, as intended, or simply introduce James’ glorious voice to a whole new generation? And, wasn’t it odd that her ‘At Last’ legacy - the ballad was one outstanding example of her range and depth, but just one - would eclipse and overshadow other tunes in her vast discography which included a vibrant range of blues, rock, funk and American standards? Yet the phrase “at last” did, in a way, succinctly sum up the rise and fall of this woman’s career and personal life. Nothing came easily to Etta James. Yet, to have sung that song and so many other standards with such authority, command of nuance and raw emotion, James exacted a price. She died January 20th of this year, having battled Leukemia, several days after her mentor and media darling, Johnny Otis, passed away. In her final days, she also suffered from dementia, but throughout her life she endured the unbearable wear and tear of heroin and cocaine addiction and then the arduous, but intrepid recovery process. Her beginnings were as precarious as the roller coaster life that followed. Jamesetta Hawkins was born in Los Angeles, in 1938, to her fourteen-year old mother, Dorothy. Rumour has it that her father was the pool shark, Rudolph Wenderone AKA Minnesota Fats. Her years as a foster child may have deeply affected her self-esteem, but also made her streetwise. Always frank, James relayed those ups and downs, plus her coming-of-age trials with racism in her autobiography with David Ritz, ‘Rage to Survive’. At the age of five, she sang in the Echoes of Eden choir, at the St. Paul Baptist Church and received vocal instruction from James Earl Hines. One of her caretakers, a man called, “Sarge”, would wake Etta up at all hours of the night, and make her sing on demand during his poker games. This intrusion led to incontinence and a fear of performing encores or being coerced into performing due to somebody else’s whims. In 1950, her biological mother took her to San Francisco where, several years later, she formed the Creolettes, a doo-wop girl band. When Johnny Otis, a bandleader, promoter, pianist and songwriter, found out about the band, he coerced Etta to meet him on a street corner at about 2 a.m. When he asked the shy teen to audition for him, she agreed to do so, but only if she could sing in the bathroom. In spite of the unorthodox setting, he was impressed with their sound, Otis persuaded the girls to change the group’s name to the Peaches and he signed them to Modern Records. When, in 1955, ‘Roll With Me Henry’ shot up to number one, they were ready to support Little Richard. In 1960 she attracted the Chess Brothers, Leonard and Marshall, who signed her, for their Southside Chicago label subsidiary, Argo. They had also produced early recordings by Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Willie Dixon. Her early recordings included ‘Spoonful’ and ‘All I Could Do Was Cry.’ The acclaimed ‘At Last’ also debuted this year. In what turned out to be a prolific period, James also recorded her follow-up, ‘The Second Time Around’, the next year. In 1963 the team produced the live album, ‘Etta James Rock The House’, but by then her career was skidding backwards due to changing musical tastes and her increasing dependency on drugs. But her years at Chess were fruitful. Stunned by her enormous talent, Leonard Chess went to work as her arranger. He felt that strings would enhance her timbre. Recordings such as ‘At Last’ were embellished by lavish, string-driven orchestrations, although it could be argued that James had a powerhouse voice that needed not much else. In fact, some of her most convincing recordings were created when she traded licks with blues harp players or acoustic twelve-bar blues guitarists. ‘Blues to the Bone’ is one example of this fantastic rendering. James sings: “The sky is crying/Look at the tears roll down the street.” And when she sang ‘Don’t Cry Baby’ from the 1961 Argo Records, pre-Chess era release, ‘Second Time Around’, her command performance was equally penetrating. Part of James’ gravitas arose from her collection of material. She did not shy away from tunes that smacked of before-its-time feminism. While other female singers were requested to smile sweetly or showcase commercial, nice-girl ballads, that even proclaimed or justified the acts of abusive boyfriends, James stood up and recounted, through razor-sharp lyrics, the resilience and wisdom of the everyday woman. In her autobiography she addresses her unbridled spirit. “I knew rebelliousness was boiling in my blood. I was ready to strike out. Looking back, I also see I had feminist leanings before I even knew what a feminist was…I had no qualms about expressing myself.” ‘This Bitter Earth’ was a song that was wrenched with pain and lyrical candour. The songs, ‘W.O.M.A.N.’ and her own, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ (from the 1967 album, ‘Tell Mama’) are performed, just as unpretentiously. What remains one of her most unforgettable recordings, ‘I’ll Drown In My Own Tears’ became a classic that few singers back in the day or now can rival. “My poor old tears – they are running wild,” she contorts. Convincingly, she continues, “ I can’t stand to be left alone, babe…” Another evocative testimonial, which made excellent use of her natural contralto, was ‘Damn Your Eyes.’ “Damn your eyes for taking my breath away/Damn your eyes for getting my hopes up high/For making me fall in love again/Damn your eyes.” True to form, when James sang about falling in love, she did not stand on ceremony. She sang it hard, fast and unforgivingly. . From ‘The Best of Etta James’ came ‘Baby, Don’t You Tear My Clothes’. “You can push and shove me all night long…” she proclaimed. But the title shows clearly that the boundaries of what she considered acceptable male behaviour would be enforced. Compare this to Billie Holiday’s choice of lyric from her cover of ‘My Man’: “He beats me too/What can I do?” James, throughout her musical life and personal life, would not play the victim. Similarly, when she first travelled to Texas, she raced into the “Whites Only” bathroom at a service station after spending many hours touring and traveling in a car with male musicians, Johnny Watson – who played guitar with his teeth before Jimi Hendrix – and Big Jim Wynn. The California teen slung profanities at the gas station owner after he berated her for her behaviour, but she only backed down after coming face to face with his shotgun. That spirit enhanced her vocals as well. And, even when she sang standards that her peers had also recorded, she added almost bizarre wildcat twists. On the album, ‘Miss Etta James, The Complete Modern and Kent Recordings’, she turned one standard, ‘Stormy Weather’ on its meteorological ear, using the word “stormy” as an integral, emotional trigger, rather than just a pleasant sounding, albeit intrinsically, musical phrase. In other words, with jazz chops like these, dismissing the talented singer as merely a purveyor of the blues would be a crime. There was also the light rock and roll side of Miss James. After all, another original song, ‘Good Rockin’ Daddy’, was an excellent ‘American Bandstand’ relic. In the mid 1950s, she answered the playful song, ‘Work With Me Annie’ written by Hank Ballard, with ‘Roll With Me Henry’ – due to censorship and sexual innuendo, the title would be changed to the insipid ‘Wallflower.’ Still, Etta James had her say. And she even tackled the folkie-beloved ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ for “The Gospel Soul of Etta James” project. Her grainy vibes turn the naïve,protest song into a Mahalia Jackson style anthem. It is no wonder that James was often discouraged and even angry at the stereotyping she received from the press. Alhough she was great at being a blues singer, she far exceeded the genre by venturing into rock, funk, gospel and jazz. In fact, in the latter category, she ventured way beyond mere scat. Like many influential jazz artisans, she practically personified, even brought to life, inane syllables. By doing so her performances took on a forceful lustre and air of unpredictability. Some of those vocal machinations resembled angry grunts, howls and sublime, heartfelt whispers. 1993 was the year in which she paid tribute to one of her own idols when she came out with ‘Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday’. Their life stories were tragically linked by substance abuse, but also favourably linked by the fact that each woman possessed an excellent ear for melody and each bravely interpreted tough themes – though James might have sung a song like ‘Strange Fruit’ in a more aggressive manner than the sweet-sounding “Lady Day.” Besides tackling jazz, Etta’s trajectory was also earmarked by the rap movement. The 1962 song, ‘Something’s Got a Hold On Me’, was sampled by Flo Rida for his ‘Good Feeling’ album in 2011 and, on Def Jef ‘s ‘Stickin’ To My Guns’, her jazz vocals merged with hip-hop. Onstage,James made a deliberate attempt to be her own person and to address her sexuality in a feminine, yet unabashed and personal way. Early on she wore super tight “cup” dresses, bleached her hair brassy blonde and wore black eyeliner that swept dramatically across her hazel eyes. She admired performers like Little Richard for his outlandish costuming and bright makeup and fully appreciated the hierarchy of the musicians who preceded her. “Everyone knows that without Richard there’d be no Michael Jackson or Prince,” she says in her book. Still her own tough girl image belied a highly sensitive being. “I imitated those artists who took a tough stance and carried an attitude that said no one or nothing could hurt them,” she asserts in her autobiography. But while Etta may have used her wardrobe and extreme make-up as a shell of protection, as performers often do, that insecurity did not affect her brazen performances. Yet there were definitely times when James felt slighted. When Beyonce Knowles was invited to perform ‘At Last’ at President Obama’s inaugural ball, and, even worse, when James realized that she was not consulted about the performance, she got stung. Beyonce had also starred in the film ‘Cadillac Records’ playing a young and drug-addled Etta James. The movie took some liberties. The storyline included a scene in which it is suggested that James had an affair with Leonard Chess. By all accounts this was false, although it is safe to say that James was devastated by his death. It was during the 1960s that she and Chess had worked closely together as she succumbed to drugs and it would not be until the 1970s that she would overcome the habit. Shortly after leaving rehab, Etta was introduced to the then up-and-coming guitarist Brian Ray, who resided in Riverside, California. He had been performing locally with Bobby “Boris” Pickett (‘The Monster Mash’). When Ray came over to meet and audition for Etta, she connected with the longhaired, outgoing blonde guitarist immediately; impressed by his talent and spirit, she asked him to become her musical director, which he did for fourteen consecutive years. Currently Ray tours with Sir Paul McCartney, has recorded two solo albums and has toured independently in the US and in South America, but his solid, personal and musical alliance with Etta made a lasting impression. Ray became godfather to her two sons and she made guest appearances on his ‘Mondo Magneto’ album on songs especially targeted for her unique voice. James received four Grammy Awards including best jazz vocal performance in 1995 for her album ‘Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday’ and a lifetime-achievement award in 2003. She greatly influenced singers, such as Janis Joplin, Joss Stone and Grace Slick. If the redemption sung about in her signature song rings true, perhaps Etta James left this world peacefully and with few regrets. She deserved no less.

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