Etta James - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


             For a black woman in mid-20th century America, life was an almost guaranteed dead end, a double whammy of sexist-racist oppression that so severely marginalized and limited one’s choices it seemed foolhardy to even dream of better conditions. When R&B singer Etta James found one of the only escape routes available to African-Americans--the blues--she climbed on board, and before long, found herself driving that train, at full steam, into previously uncharted musical territories. The journey was circuitous, fraught with peril and nearly killed her more than once, but the ultimate outcome was an inarguable triumph, personally and artistically. When Etta James sings, her soul deep, experiential authority commands attention, demands a response and takes complete control of both the song and her audience.


            The sheer depth of James’ perpetually intense performances sprang from a complex series of dire circumstances and experience; born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938 in Los Angeles, California, hers was an incalculably painful childhood, one spent never knowing who her father was (legendary pool player Minnesota Fats was a notable candidate for paternity) and being shuttled back and forth between two women confusingly assigned equal maternal status--a bizarre scenario that went far beyond the standard broken home syndrome. Her riveting 1995 autobiography, Rage to Survive, relates such charming recollections as being told “Your real father was a rapist and a killer and you’re nothing but his bad seed.”


            Dividing her time between stays in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Bernardino, honing her craft in her church's gospel choir, by age 14, she was rolling with violent ‘Frisco chick gang the Lucky 20s and developing her own all-girl musical act, the Peaches, but after a fortuitous meeting with Los Angeles bandleader Johnny Otis that resulted almost immediately in a recording session, her life would never be the same. Otis was a sharp operator and he needed a girl singer for an “answer song” to the recent Hank Ballard R&B smash, “Work with Me, Annie,” a song about as sexually suggestive as the airwaves could stand in 1955. Even at 17 years of age, James already possessed formidable talent as a vocalist, and in short order, she found herself in a Culver City, California recording studio laying down “Roll with Me, Henry,“ a salacious romp that showcased her big, boisterous pipes to no small advantage. An exuberantly horny romp that left little to the imagination (so much so it was re-titled “The Wallflower” by Modern Records), the song faced across-the-board censorship yet still managed to make a significant impact, reaching the top of the  R&B chart and lingering there for the next four weeks (significantly, it was almost immediately covered by white pop singer Georgia Gibbs, resulting in a nice payday for Otis, Ballard and James, who split the writer royalties). James’ follow-up release, the raucous “Good Rockin’ Daddy,” made just as much noise and established her as one of the top forces in the R&B coven, right alongside Big Maybelle, Dinah Washington, LaVern Baker and Ruth Brown.


            James, an exotic creation with a frosted-platinum bob, cherubic features and an insouciant pout, found herself on the road with some of the wildest performers in American pop history--Johnny Guitar Watson, Little Richard, Ike and Tina, and Elvis Presley--a non-stop crash course in bandstand razzle-dazzle, after-hours hedonism and, at just about every gas station and roadside diner, an endless course of racial degradation and harassment. Despite the fact that her life was interspersed with endless hassles from small town cops and shady nightclub characters, it was the glorious zenith of rhythm and blues, allowing black women, for the first time, to raise an independent, untrammeled voice and she took full advantage of her unlikely circumstances. James did so with an emphatic shout that far surpassed the severely limited messages of any early 1950s-era female singer, and as such, she represented a stunning artistic breakthrough.


            Despite the fact that she did not release a record for almost five years after “Good Rockin’ Daddy,” when James signed to Chess Records in 1960, she continued to succeed. “All I Could Do Was Cry” went to number 2 on the R&B chart and number 33 on the pop chart, followed by a string of Top Ten R&B hits, “Trust In Me,” “Don’t Cry, Baby,” “At Last,” all of which charted concurrently in the pop Top 50. James’ impressive, ever-ascending musical output allowed her to not only shout down-and-dirty R&B, but with the success of her still-inescapable 1961 version of “At Last,” also enabled her to re-define the American pop standard.


            James also impressively bridged the evolutionary gap between R&B and soul music, codifying the style right alongside Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Solomon Burke. She began churning out a flurry of choice, steamy proto-soul classics, passionate rousers like “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” and “Tell Mama,” songs she put across with a dazzling combination of  undeniable sincerity and volcanic power. James performance of “I’d Rather Go Blind” is a chilling example of her interpretive perfection--equal parts sanctified fire and utterly forlorn resignation, the song stands as one of soul music’s greatest moments. Ultimately, she trumped all of her vaunted R&B colleagues, creating a song catalog that is near indescribable in its range and power.


            Along the way, she became not only one of the biggest stars in the business, but also a dope addict, check-kiting grifter, black Muslim convert, and briefly imprisoned criminal. She lost several of her closest friends (revered singer-songwriter Jesse Belvin in a car wreck and the brutally murdered soul legend Sam Cooke), and embarked on a series of disastrously abusive romantic entanglements. That she survived at all (and finally settled down enough to marry happily and raise two children) is damn near miraculous, but the ultimate outcome has been James’ extraordinary demonstration of musical artistry, one that defied limitation and continuously reached for a higher plateau of expression--an ability born from the very travails that nearly destroyed her.


            Always a first-rate singer characterized by a singular blend of innate communicative instinct and roof-raising showmanship, by the early ‘70s, she was operating at a spellbinding level--just get an earful of her “Sugar on the Floor,” again, a demonstration of perfected technique that combined mournful loss, open vulnerability and steely, soul-deep resolve into a mesmerizing, unrivaled recording. While LaVern Baker worked a government 9-to-5 in the Philippines and Irma Thomas drove a school bus, James was able to manage what eluded so many of her contemporaries.  She had the ability to continue and remain relevant, and she also was able to elaborate on, with spectacular results, the blues tradition that brought her fellow sister singers, what often seemed an excruciatingly ephemeral fame.


            In fact, James ranks behind only Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick for having racked up the most charted hits by a female R&B artist but, still hooked on heroin, it was no stroll in the park. She finally kicked the habit in the mid-70s, and gained additional notoriety by appearing before an audience of 120,000, alongside James Brown and BB King, at a music festival in Zaire, Africa that had been organized by the R&B great Lloyd Price and boxing promoter Don King. In 1978, James opened a series of shows for longtime fans, the Rolling Stones, providing her with invaluable exposure to an entire new audience.


            James never broke her stride, touring non-stop and by the century’s close, she was once more gaining significant national attention. She was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, and not long after, her moving, jazz-infused Billie Holiday tribute Mystery Lady album (1994 Private Music) scored a Grammy, the first of three such awards (other significant recognition for the singer includes the NARAS Lifetime Achievement award, the Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer award an honor from the W.C. Handy Blues Foundation, and her own star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame). The 21st century found her frequently recording and as a perennial fixture on the club and festival circuit, performing an ever expanding repertoire that frequently takes pages from the Sinatra, John Lennon, Eagles and James Brown songbooks--James has never recognized any limitation.


            When the spotlight falls on Etta James, she draws not only upon the blues, gospel and soul traditions, but also from the lifetime of agony and exult that’s made her what she is--an incomparable vocalist, one who can make listeners break out in a sweat, then turn around and chill them to the core. James is the final link to the crucial, historic R&B sisterhood, and she has continued to uphold that institution with equal measures of down-home, earthy funk, high-toned jazz diva cool and her own singular brand of profoundly involved artistry. Sadly, James died Januray 20, 2012, in Riverside, California. She was 73.


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