Etta James: R&B in its original sense

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Etta James
Etta James circa 1960 in Chicago. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, via NPR)

Etta James was selected by the Current's listeners as one of the honorees in our celebration of Black History Month, which comes to a close this week. Here's an in-depth look at the singer's stormy life and career.

In his 2010 memoir, Life, Keith Richards noted that Etta James had "a voice that could take you to hell or take you to heaven." In Rage To Survive, James' 1995 autobiography (written with David Ritz), it's achingly clear that though her personal life was filled with demons, her innate talent, astounding voice, and determination earned her some hard-won salvation. In a review of a mid-'90s best-of collection, Robert Christgau encapsulated her lasting appeal and impact: "What makes James a myth and a secret at the same time is how hard she is to classify. Blues, jazz, pop, rock, soul — she's all of these and none, because what she really is is R&B, in its original sense: blues so fetching white people can't help but love 'em even though they're aimed at young blacks."

She was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938 to a 14-year-old mother (who said James's father was the famous pool shark, Minnesota Fats). Her talent was apparent early on. "At age five, I became a little singing star," Etta said in Rage. "[At St. Paul Baptist Church] we had one of the biggest, baddest, hippest choirs anywhere, the Echoes of Eden. Our choirmaster, Professor James Earle Hines, was my first and heaviest musical mentor, the cat who taught me to sing."

Throughout her tumultuous youth, she worked on her craft. "When I came up, a premium was placed on good singing, strong singing, real singing," James recalled. "This was true in church, and just as true on the streets. There was no faking it, no room for almost-rans. Too many guys could really blow, harmonize, slide up and down the scale from baritone to falsetto without missing a trick. I was lucky to have the lungs to keep up with these bad boys. When it came to singing, I was no shrinking violet."

When she was 14 James started singing with two friends; they called themselves the Creolettes. They auditioned for legendary R&B bandleader Johnny Otis, who hired the trio for his road show. "Johnny Otis rechristened me [as Etta James]. He was the one who flipped everything around," she said. James soon recorded her first hit for Modern Records: "Roll With Me, Henry," co-written with Otis, was an answer record to Hank Ballard and the Midnighters' bawdy "Work With Me, Annie"; released with a new demure title, "The Wallflower," it hit No. 2 on the R&B chart in 1955. Another suggestive track, "Good Rockin' Daddy," followed. She recorded for Modern for the next few hit-free years and toured nationwide, which yielded many memorable encounters with her peers and idols (see below for her comments). "I was off and running down the road of hard-rocking rhythm and blues. And if I'm thinking now about what it all means, at the time I wasn't doing much thinking at all; I was just living."

With her Modern discs failing to chart, Bobby Lester of the Moonglows encouraged James to pursue a deal with the storied Chicago-based Chess Records. Leonard Chess, who co-founded the label with his brother Phil, signed Etta, whose sides were issued on Chess's Argo subsidiary. "I saw the switch from Modern to Chess as an upgrade," James said in Rage. "I was tired of doing quickie teenage rockin', humping and bumping ditties. Besides, I was no longer a teenager. I was 22 and sophisticated. Or at least I wanted to be sophisticated."

James scored her first Top 40 entry, "All I Could Do Was Cry," in 1960. "Leonard Chess went up and down the halls of Chess announcing, 'Etta's crossed over! Etta's crossed over!' " James said in Rage. "I still don't know exactly what that meant, except that maybe more white people were listening to me." Her early Chess years spawned a string of R&B smashes, including the standard-to-be "At Last" and "Trust In Me" in 1961; "Something's Got a Hold On Me" and "Stop the Wedding" in '62; "Pushover," "Two Sides To Every Story," and "Would It Make Any Difference To You" in '63; and "Baby, What You Want Me To Do" and "Loving You More Every Day" in 1964.

But her newfound success was undermined by her chaotic life, with a penchant for addiction, petty crime (she "started working a cash-checking scheme"), and romantic travails. "I guess you'd call me cocky," Etta said. "My cockiness got me in trouble. Some people go through a period — maybe a year or two or three — where they rail against authority. In my case, the rebel period lasted for what seemed like several lifetimes. I was a fool who was smart enough to know I was a fool — and dumb enough not to care. Now that's a real fool. Truth is, I enjoyed being a fool." And in the early '60s, James' substance abuse took a dark turn. "More than booze or weed or cocaine, heroin hit me hard. I loved it. Heroin became my drug of choice. It took me where I wanted to go — far away, out of it — and in a hurry ... I was living in that place where junkies love to live, the never-never land of unreality, the place of spaced-out cool. I got hooked real quick." James' habits derailed her career path: she spent four months in Cook County Jail in 1964 and moved back to LA in 1965. "I found work when I had to. I was essentially working for my habit."

In 1967, the Chess brass had Etta follow Aretha Franklin's footsteps to record at the Fame Studios in Alabama with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. The sessions yielded some of James's definitive works, including "I'd Rather Go Blind" (which Etta co-wrote), a torrid cover of Otis Redding's "Security," and "Tell Mama," her biggest Top 40 hit (No. 23). But in Rage To Survive, Etta renounces one of her signature songs: "There are folks who think 'Tell Mama' is the Golden Moment of the Golden Age of Soul . . . I wish I could agree. Sure, the song made me money. It warmed Leonard Chess's heart to see the thing cross over to the pop charts, where it lingered for a long while. You might even say it became a classic. But I have to confess that it was never a favorite of mine. Never liked it. Never liked singing it — not then, not now ... Maybe it's just that I didn't like being cast in the role of the Great Earth Mother, the gal you come to for comfort and sex."

James had a son, Donto, in 1968, but she was still making bad choices, leading to more arrests and personal strife. She spent 17 months in a psychiatric hospital starting in 1974 and moved all over the country, from Alaska to Texas to New York. Musically, she chased some trends on her '70s albums (including Etta James Sings Funk and a self-titled disc produced by a former Steppenwolf member featuring three Randy Newman songs). After one-offs for Warner Bros. in 1978 and MCA in 1980, Etta was without a label until the release of Seven Year Itch on Island in 1989. Fourteen more albums were issued between 1990 and 2011, highlighted by Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday (1994), Life's Been Rough On Me (1997), and her swan song, The Dreamer (2011) — featuring a wicked take on Guns N' Roses' "Welcome To The Jungle"! (Her profile was raised in 2008 when James was portrayed by Beyonce in the film Cadillac Records, which told the Chess story.) She died on January 20, 2012, of leukemia.

Etta fostered her inner drive, for better but, too often, for worse: "You can hear it in my music. It's always been there. I had it when I was a little kid. I have it now. I've been racing, raging through life long as I can remember. I'm not sure what the rage is all about — a restlessness, an anger when things are too calm or slow or boring, when people are phony, when too much is expected of me, or too little. I rage when I'm threatened, or when it seems like I've hit a dead end. My rage finds me a way out, a shortcut around the back alley, an escape hatch through the floor." To paraphrase Dylan Thomas, Etta James most assuredly did not go gentle throughout her hard life.

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Etta James had intriguing interactions with a who's who of musicians. Here are some of the impressions she shared in Rage To Survive:

Tina Turner: "I saw her as a bird in a cage. She wanted to fly out but was too scared of the world to budge."

Elvis Presley: "He turned out supercool and extra-respectful, with his 'pleased to meet you, ma' am' gentlemanly manners."

Bo Diddley: "Wouldn't call him hotheaded, but he's egotistical as all get-out."

Billie Holiday: "She looked down at her own swollen hands and rubbed them together, as though in pain. 'Just don' t ever let this happen to you,' she said. And with that, she walked away. Maybe she saw the wildness in my eyes; maybe she saw all the trouble waiting for me."

Little Richard: "I loved him. I thought he was brave to put out his personality in such an individual way. He had the guts to be a king and queen all at the same time. Everyone knows that without Richard there'd be no Michael Jackson or Prince. He led the way, making it all right to be weird, wedding his weirdness to his creativity."

Sam Cooke: "I found the young Sam Cooke a lot cooler than, say, the young Marvin Gaye. Sam was totally confident, whereas Marvin was insecure and egotistical. In a field — be it gospel or R&B — filled with so many screamers, honkers, and shouters, Sam was the epitome of mellow. He tried to school me with some of his mellow, but I was too hotheaded."

Chuck Berry: "Chuck was a wiseguy and a cynic. He was also smart, saying things I'd remember like, 'Show business is too much monkey business.' His songs were smart because, unlike most of us, he was aiming straight at white teenagers, the saddle show crowd. He had a marketing mind; he sang and wrote to sell."

Miles Davis: "I remember getting high with Miles. I was surprised he looked so young 'cause I associated him with the older bebop generation. I mean, here was the hippest cat in the city...the gruff-talking clean-dressing Prince of Darkness up in my room looking for good dope and sharp conversation."

Jimi Hendrix: "We were calling him Egg Foo Yung 'cause all he did was eat Chinese food at a chop suey joint on 125th Street. Ate egg foo yung every night of the week."

Sly Stone: "Sly had a bit of the devil in him. He knew the same was true of me. We related. The man was the master. Straight-up genius. All the years I been in the business, I've never seen a talent like Sly's. When it comes to grooves and flat-out

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  • Etta James star on the walk of fame
    Singer Etta James' star is seen on the Hollywood Walk of Fame April 18, 2003 in Hollywood, California. James is the 2,223rd star on the Walk of Fame. (Vince Bucci/Getty Images)