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."