Unsung diva

R&B great Etta James ponders the fame that got away

About halfway through Rage To Survive, the new autobiography of Etta James, one thought hits you smack between the eyes: This is not the kind of life story that's written while the subject is still alive, much less by the subject herself.

The book is a harrowing page-turner that chronicles (with not always flattering detail) 40 brawling, bawdy, tempest-tossed, drug-addled show-biz years in the life of one of the greatest American singers of the last half century. If the name Etta James doesn't automatically spring to your lips when you list the rhythm-and-blues giants--Ray, Aretha, James, Otis--that says nothing about her extraordinary talent. She is, in some ways, a more sophisticated singer than all of them, a woman who combines the expert timing and improvisatory prowess of a jazz vocalist with the raw power of a down-home blues diva.

But after reading Rage To Survive, which James co-wrote with Dallas-born writer David Ritz, it comes as no surprise that James has thus far escaped taking her rightful place in the American musical pantheon. Much of the time, her career was forced into the back seat by some voracious personal demons--a 15-year addiction to heroin, countless arrests and legal hassles, a succession of violent or faithless lovers, exploitative music producers, and tumultuous family relations that disrupted her life again and again.

Worse than everything else was the drugs. Although James admits she also consumed her share of cocaine and alcohol, the need for heroin controlled her every action, from the pimping, dealing gangsters she chose to run with to some moments of outright larceny on her part--participating in a check-kiting scheme, or stealing her band- members' instruments to pawn for a bag of smack.

"I'm not gonna say I'm proud of everything I've done," the 57 year-old James says from her New York City hotel room. "But I am proud I survived the mistakes, and learned from 'em. When you're on heroin, man, you'd steal from your own mama to get a fix.

"I wanted to be as honest about my troubles as I could in the book, because maybe somebody out there who's messing around with the stuff will read it and get a little taste of what's down the road for 'em."

The musical road for James has been filled with meteoric highs and sewer-crawling lows. She went from a childhood headlining her church choir in Los Angeles to an adolescence smoking dope, guzzling wine, and singing on street corners for change. In 1953, she dropped out of high school at the age of 15, after an impromptu hotel-room audition for the renowned bandleader Johnny Otis, to tour the country, make records and perform on package shows with the likes of Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Sam Cooke, and Marvin Gaye. Along the journey, Rage To Survive chronicles an endless series of unforgettable snapshots from the tragedies and triumphs of a rhythm and blues legend--Etta barely surviving nine blows to the head with a Cutty Sark bottle by a deranged boyfriend (her hair-weave saved her); Etta getting encouragement and support from her drag-queen friends, one of whom she was jailed with in Indianapolis for possession; and Etta singing "For All We Know" to the lesbian couples in the women's unit of Chicago's Cook County Jail. Throughout that dark period she was scamming to quench her jones, but her battle with drugs ended more than seven years ago.

"That's not me now, that's not where I'm at anymore," James clarifies quickly, and adds with a throaty chuckle, "The devil made me do it, but he's outta my system now."

It should be obvious to everyone familiar with the singer's raw, poignant sound that the miracle of her survival and the miracle of her music are one and the same. She says that of all the areas in her life heroin sabotaged, her voice was unaffected. That's not exactly true: While it would be foolish to glamorize her addiction, all the personal turmoil is right there in her songs, like gasoline thrown on a runaway blaze. During much of her classic association with the legendary Chess Records label, James literally sounds like she's singing for her life. The emotional arsenal in her muscular contralto is staggering--she pleads, demands, wails, moans, screams, sometimes all in the same song. Her approach to every song is unique, to the extent she sometimes sounds like different women on the same album.

James pauses when told this. "Hmmm...that's interesting," she says. "When I go into the studio to cut a tune, it's the musicians who really get me going. Nothing about it is too deliberate. I let my voice follow along with the music, and then suddenly a chord change reminds me of somebody I worked with or listened to, and I sing the lyric this way or that way."

What James has sung "this way or that" is the most intriguing, if also frustrating, catalog in all of rhythm and blues. The original Chess albums are loaded down with inferior compositions. You get the sense from surveying James' recorded career that while she was distracted, her producers often didn't know how best to channel her mercurial energy, or didn't care as long as she was cranking out the hits. She sometimes sounds stranded, working overtime to give novelty songs and "hit" formulas that don't deserve it the Etta James treatment.

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