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.

But these failures only set the stage for a variety of spectacular vocal triumphs in any style you toss her way--Southern-fried soul, funk, honky-tonk ballads, pop jazz, and even "the low-down, dirty stinking blues" as she calls them in "I Sing the Blues," a number she recorded for the album The Right Time, her 1992 reunion with legendary producer Jerry Wexler.

Catch any of her numerous Chess greatest-hits collections, and you're knocked flat by the diversity of styles James can master and yet still retain her own eccentric groove. Listen to her croon "Don't Cry, Baby," a Bessie Smith tune reworked as a tinkling-piano showcase for James' sly, nurturing side, and then skip on over to her live Nashville performance of Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me To Do." They were recorded just two years apart, yet the latter song features a totally different James--she maintains a low-flame scream that undulates with each raunchy punch of the drum, working the audience into a frenzy with what amounts to an aural act of striptease.

Even James expresses bewilderment when asked what kind of singer she considers herself, and suspects that's part of the reason why you don't hear her name more. "When I go to a record store, I don't know where to find me," she admits with exasperation. "Sometimes I'm in blues, sometimes I'm in soul, sometimes I'm in a little cardboard box in the corner under the shelf.

"I feel like a giant eraser has come down from the sky and took my name out of the history books. When I watch the awards shows and read the books and magazines, my name is only mentioned sometimes, and it's usually as part of a list of other Chess artists. Maybe it's because I never wanted to let them film me back in the '60s. If you notice, there's no existing footage of my early performances, except for some pirated stuff. I was always nervous around cameras. My grandmother used to tell me when they take your picture, they steal a little piece of your soul."

But more importantly, historians and journalists--not to mention record company marketing strategists--rely on categories, and since James has never been a purist with her music, her career can be charted as one zigzagging line that cuts through a variety of musical eras yet never embodies a single one.

"Once I was doing a concert in Japan, and a journalist told me, 'We understand you're neither fish nor fowl,'" James says, laughing slightly. "He meant that even from where I'm from, they couldn't label me. I guess I'm Downy, Purex, and Tide put together.

"It used to frustrate me, all the different names people would call me. But then I realized I dug getting into different bags. When Little Richard is singing, he's always being Little Richard. Chuck Berry is always doing Chuck Berry. But when Etta James sings...well, who's she gonna be?"

This question seems to have haunted even James, who for many years labored in serious debt while the profits from her multiple chart hits were mysteriously absorbed by Chess. This is the sad story of many African-American artists of her generation and many more in the generations preceding her. Not only the record companies, but the promoters and venues who sold every seat for concerts featuring a long bill of mind-blowing rhythm and blues performers ripped off the very artists who trod the boards and belted the songs.

"I think the whole time I was with Chess, I made about $10,000," James says. "You understand, that was after almost fifteen years and a lot of hits. They'd give you stuff--pay the note on your rented Cadillac, buy you coats and leather clothes, step in to help you with legal problems--but most of us never made a real income.

"For years afterward, I traveled around with the Chess folks telling me, 'You owe us $300,000, because that's what we owe the government in taxes for you.' Then MCA bought the label and looked over the books and said, 'That's bullshit.' We paid what needed to be paid, then renegotiated the contracts, so now I make money from the old music."

But what about the new music? James may have her classics played as the backdrop in commercials for Diet Coke, Jaguar, and Tampax as well as a recent Oscar-winning film (her 1963 "Something's Got a Hold On Me" is featured prominently near the end of the Jessica Lange vehicle Blue Sky), but she resumed a full-time recording career in the mid-'80s. Freed from the inspiration of addiction, James has sounded less urgent but more exultant. She produced three albums of spacious, spirited rhythm and blues on Island Records, the aforementioned Elektra reunion with Wexler, and now returns to the genre that made her name with Chess--jazz balladry.

Her debut album on Private Music, 1994's Mystery Lady, is a scintillating return to form for a woman who has always specialized in sad love songs. This is a collection of tunes originally sung by Billie Holiday, the favorite singer of James' mother, who emerges from the autobiography as both a savior and a destructive force. In Rage To Survive, James talks about childhood memories of her mother Dorothy with tangled emotions. She was rarely around, and when she was, she often punished her little daughter harshly and without cause. But James also remembers her own idolatry of the slim, dark-haired beauty who listened to sweet jazz on the phonograph while she dolled herself up, in front of little Etta, for evenings on the town.

After many strained and chaotic years, James and her mother are part of each other's lives--under certain conditions. "She doesn't listen to my music much, except sometimes she sneaks it, and then tries to act cool about it," she says. "I remember one time she came to me and started talking, in a very proper and aloof voice"--James mimics a bourgie tone--"'Why would you want to record a song about breaking up somebody's home?'"

She's referring to the cover of Ann Peebles' "Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home" from 1987's Seven Year Itch. "I said to her, 'Now, come on, Dorothy, haven't you ever been sittin' in a bar somewhere and you see some cat who really turns you on and you think, I wonder if he's got somebody else, except the more you think about it the more you really don't care?' She thought about that for a minute, and said, 'Well, yes, I guess so.' She never mentioned it again."

Troubled relationship or no, Mystery Lady is dedicated to James' mother. Working her way through the lush, plush field of Dallas native Cedar Walton's musical arrangements, Etta whispers and warbles the selections with a delicately kindled passion that never requires one of her trademark screams to get the message across. The collection reminded critics of Etta's remarkable control, became her best-selling album in years, and after being nominated many times she finally won the Grammy this year for Best Jazz Vocal Performance.

James didn't attend the ceremonies, however: Private Music arranged for her to receive the award during a ceremony at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. "I hate the kind of people that go to the Grammys," James says unapologetically. "Everybody's just there to see what everybody else has on. I get very uptight. I don't like green rooms, I don't like sitting at a table full of people I don't know. Most of those folks wouldn't smile at me if they saw me on the street, anyway."

As far the award itself, James says she was pleased, but a part of her also felt like she was being handed "a chicken and a watermelon."

"You know," she shrugs, "I've been out there on stage and making records for all these years, and suddenly they want to turn around and notice me?"

What seems to excite James far more is the whole new generation of fans she's earned with her recent recordings and concert dates--most of them white, and most not yet born when she was scoring her big chart hits in the '50s and '60s.

"All the black folks who grew up listening to my music, they've settled down now. They're church-goers, they're Christians, they don't go out to concerts and mix it up. Hell, I don't go to concerts that much anymore. I'm afraid I'm gonna get carjacked, or something.

"Nowadays I look out there in the audience, and I see all these white kids--20, 25 years old--dancing up a storm while we play. I remember one time this 17-year-old boy from North Carolina managed to get a hold of my home number, and he called up and wanted to speak to me. I pretended I was somebody else, and asked what he wanted." In a high-pitched twang, she recounts what he told her: "'I just bought a new Etta James album, and I think she's the greatest singer in the world. Does she have any more?'

"Then I told him it was me, and said, 'Oh, yeah, honey, there's a lot more albums out there. If you can't find me, just check the cardboard box under the shelf.'

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