Voices: R.I.P. Etta James (1938-2012)

Compiled by Arturo R. García

The live performance is brutal, a storm of laidback blues and thunderous notes, and as raw as if the song’s betrayal had happened just earlier that evening. James punishes that microphone until you pity it. At one point she begins to pounce on the word “baby,’’ booming its syllables like they’re meant to sound like gunfire.

Dr. John eventually saunters over from his piano, looking like a dog that’s just peed on the rug. He’s supposed to appease James for stepping out on her – “It wasn’t nothin’ serious / I guess I was just a little delirious’’ – but even he knows it’s in vain. Hell hath no fury like this particular woman scorned.

At the end of the performance, James embraces Dr. John, her head resting on his shoulder, and I like to imagine James is thinking what I’m thinking: Where the hell did that just come from?

In just six minutes, that, to me, is the essence of Etta James. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.
– James Reed, The Boston Globe

She was an accident, born to a fourteen-year-old black girl in Depression-era Los Angeles. She never knew her father, but thought that he might have been the famous white pool player, Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone, whom she met in the nineteen-eighties. Like Marilyn Monroe, that other famous blonde Los Angeleno, James was more or less an orphan, spiritually anyway, abandoned by her mother who ran off to chase men (as a child James called her “the Mystery Lady”) and handed over to a number of caretakers in the meantime. And, again like Monroe, by the time James was a teen-ager, she was filled with ambition and confusion. One played off the other. A foster father would beat her until the girl with the powerful voice sang for his friends. Afterwards, she’d return to her cold, wet bed; James was a bed wetter.

By the time she was a teen-ager, James was reunited, if that is the word, with her mother, who took her to San Francisco, where James’s love of R.&B. saved her, to some extent—but is talent enough if one has been continually unloved by those unreliable specimens, other people? That was what her big sound was about—a deafening cry in the wilderness of her unconquerable loneliness. She was fat: with drugs, food, incredible technical skill. But nothing could fill her up. All she could do was try to expel—shake off—some of the evening’s exertions (looking for dope on a more or less daily basis amounts to a job in itself) in the recording studio, where she sang a kind of speeded up blues, which I do not associate with R.&B. so much as it being just James’s singing, a variation of a sound I’ve heard all my life: black mothers calling down from various tenement windows for their children to come on in and eat their supper, or take some kind of nourishment, emotional and otherwise.
– Hilton Als, The New Yorker

I used to go to Baltimore at least two or three times a year, at the Royal Theatre. Remember that theater? Now that was a bum theater. Everybody that ever went there would be terrified to go. ‘Where are you working?’ ‘Oh, I’m working at the Royal Theatre in Baltimore. And then I’d go to the Howard Theatre in Washington.’ There was one more — we called them the funky three.

They were the funkiest theaters because people would come in there with pickles, with olives, with boiled eggs and get ready to throw all kinds of stuff at you. And the thing is, they used to throw the stuff. It wasn’t heartbreaking to people like me or Sam Cooke. It was the older entertainers that didn’t understand. ‘Why are they going to be throwing popcorn at me?’

Everybody knew, ‘Oh boy, here’s Baltimore.’ When I pulled up, I knew the vegetable stores were going to make a little money that week. Tomatoes — it didn’t matter. If they’d get you really good, like, get you in the face, or on your body, I would just laugh about it.

Baltimore was always a really raunchy city, compared to Washington D.C. But in Baltimore, I would just be waiting for ’em. I’d say, ‘Well my hair’s blonde but tonight it’s going to be tomato red when we leave here.’
– Etta James, interview with The Baltimore Sun, published 2012

I had a real nice figure and I was tall. And I remember this singer Joyce Bryant … She wore fishtail gowns, sequined fishtail gowns, and she was black, and she had the nerve to wear platinum hair. And then I also loved Jayne Mansfield, because Jayne Mansfield had the blond hair and had like the poochie lips and the mole and all this. So I think what I did, it was kind of combine [them]. … I wanted to look grown, you know; I wanted to wear tall high-heeled shoes, and fishtail gowns, and big, long rhinestone earrings.
– Etta James, interview with NPR, 1994

James has a Grammy, a string of classic hits and a 1993 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame under her ever-shrinking belt (James recently lost 100 pounds; her doctor wants her to shed 50 more). But she’s also had her share of broken hearts, broken men, and thankfully, a broken two-decade addiction to heroin. This is one woman who has seen it all.

Her eyes cloud over, and her voice softens. “I can only go there, go there again, be there, do that again – some things I just won’t do again,” she says. “But the other things, I will.”

Maybe that’s why she sings what she sings in that unmistakable manner. Maybe that’s why she dances. James herself doesn’t even know for sure. But this she knows: She’ll always be happiest singing the blues.

“I can’t be talking about the moon and the stars. It has to be something heavy. Something heavy that I can say, ‘That’s right,’ “she says, touching her hand to her head. “That is right!”
– Denise Quan, CNN, 2002

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

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  • dyhh55

    Wow…just wow! I have loved her since I was a little girl…rest in peace and love Miss Etta!