The woman born Jamesetta Hawkins 70 years ago in Los Angeles is one tough mama — a true R&B survivor. Inspiration to everyone from Janis Joplin to rising great-white-hope Adele, Etta came back from the living death of heroin abuse to enjoy a second wind of fame as a matriarch of soul. I've had the honor of meeting her twice: once in London in 1984, then five years later (in much better shape) in Montreux, Switzerland. You can hear my 1989 conversation with her on the Rock's Backpages site. Barney Hoskyns, RBP Editorial Director
WHEN ETTA JAMES was a 17-year old glamour-puss with peroxide-blond hair and a lewd hit entitled "Roll With Me Henry," she had a brief encounter with her idol Billie Holiday that she never forgot. Helped into a radio station by two men because her feet were so swollen she couldn't walk, the 40-year-old junkie turned to her teenage admirer and said "Don't ever let this happen to you."
The fact that it did happen to Etta, born to an unmarried 14-year-old in 1938, only makes the survival of this archetypal R&B earth mama and powerhouse contralto belter the more remarkable. Against all odds she has pulled through 20 years of heavy drug addiction and found a new lease of life on Island Records--run, as she puts it, by "ragamuffin man" Chris Blackwell, who "picks up all the little ragamuffins and outcasts that nobody wants and gives them a home."
Called Seven Year Itch because she hadn't had a major-label deal in that many years, her first album for Blackwell is a resounding return to the form of her best records for Chess in the 1960s, a collection of songs which serve as perfect vehicles for the unleashing of a passionate rage. When Etta screams "I feel like breaking up somebody's home!" or spits out the lyrics to the ballad "Damn Your Eyes," years of pent-up pain and frustration seem to pour out of her.
"I guess this anger goes all the way back to my mother," she says. "When I was a nice little 12-year-old church girl who went to camp in the vacation, I was taken from a foster home in LA to live with my mom in a rooming-house in San Francisco, and half the time I'd wake up to find she wasn't there, and there'd be winos in the toilet..." To this day, she adds, her mother has never witnessed an Etta James show.
Etta's hurt and anger inform almost every recording she has ever made, from the rock 'n' roll of the '50s through the jazzy blues ballads and gospel-drenched soul of the '60s to the funk of her '70s albums. Not surprisingly, she has had problems squeezing into the music industry's endlessly constricting pigeonholes.
"One of the things I like about Europe", she says, "is that you don't have radio categories like Urban Contemporary and all the jive that goes along with that." After years of fending off labels like "Blues Singer," she is at last being accepted simply as one of the great post-war black vocal performers.
"I feel comfortable," she laughs, "but I don't know what I feel comfortable as, and I don't even care." Atlantic's Jerry Wexler, who produced her on the flawed but rewarding Deep In The Night album a decade ago, told Etta she was "neither fish nor fowl," a description that could be extended to her light skin color: for some years she actually had problems being accepted as black.
On stage, any lingering doubts or fears quickly fall away. "I can do some things up there that I wouldn't ordinarily do," she says. "I turn into a clown; the only thing I don't have is a red nose. I let everything out, and then maybe I get back the security I need." At Montreux she sends herself up after only one song, striving to heave her considerable bulk on to a stool which has been raised too high. The next minute, however, she chills a thousand spines with the desperate "I'd Rather Go Blind," one of her few self-penned songs.
Being onstage with a clean bloodstream has made a big difference to her live performance. "I'm really in touch with everything. I can read expressions on people's faces and I last longer. When you're able to stay away from it like that, you start to realize that you really are very powerful." With the beginning of her recovery from addiction, moreover, the post-show comedown is considerably less brutal than it used to be; being alone with herself in the hotel room is no longer a frightening prospect.
Etta wants to call the follow-up album Sticking To My Guns, but plans to give it a more contemporary treatment than that accorded Seven Year Itch. "It's not like I want to be Madonna or even a Tina Turner", she says. "But I would just like to make my mark."
Hear the audio of this interview, and read more Etta articles, at www.rocksbackpages.com. Over 12,000 articles by the greatest writers and from the most legendary rock publications of the last 40 years.