Unsung diva

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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?'

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Jimmy Fowler

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