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Etta James, R.I.P.

© Carol Cooper, 2012

Etta James used to tell a story about meeting Billie Holiday in which Holiday told her -- fatherless wild child to fatherless wild child -- not to let the bad men and drugs that were going to come her way destroy her. Something about that brief conversation must've stuck, because despite many misadventures with drugs and men over the years, James was sober by the time I met her in the early '90s and carefully planning the comeback which won her new contracts, tours, awards, and laurels. James lived to see her role as a musical pioneer boldly re-inscribed in America's public memory, then capped her legacy with a magnificent final album mere months before her death in Riverside, Calif., on January 20, just five days short of her 74th birthday.

The cosmic coincidence of Etta's first commercial producer Johnny Otis dying only days before she passed underscores the importance of their collaboration. She approached the bandleader/talent scout because of his reputation around black Los Angeles as an offbeat visionary who could make things happen. She knew that if her intimidating package of jailbait-mojo didn't scare him off (as it almost did) they could make successful recordings together.

Like Aretha, James -- born born Jamesetta Hawkins -- learned to sing in her local church choir, but the Los Angeles scene didn't sound like Detroit, Chicago, New York, Philly, Memphis or N'awlins. Despite migration, touring, and national radio, each city created its own flavor of what Billboard would call "race music," and the Baptist church a pre-pubescent James shared with jazz-gospel legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe was famous for cultivating versatile, powerful performers.

Otis (nee John Veliotes, a Greek-American musical entrepreneur who chose to identify as black) met the half-black Hawkins, who believed Minnesota Fats was her missing deadbeat dad, in 1954. He changed her name and the name of the girl trio she'd formed to record with, then released "Etta"'s first r&b chart hit when she was 15: a provocative answer record to Hank Ballard's "Work With me Annie" variously called "The Wallflower/Roll with Me Henry."

By producing this sex-positive track for Modern Records, Otis coincidentally established James as a rock and roll rebel alongside the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis -- long before young females were fully accepted into the more genteel doo-wop scene, which filled the pop charts with Brill Building girl groups during the 1960s.

Etta's move from California's Modern label to Chess Records in 1960 would further separate her from her Brill Building peers by placing her among a roster of rough and ready bluesmen, with whom she was all too willing to compete in sound and style. Although happy to make silky crossover ballads like "At Last," she equally enjoyed sending rockin' dance numbers like "Tell Mama" or "Something's Got A Hold On Me" up the r&b charts. "Some people call me a jazz singer, and some call me a rock or blues singer," she once quipped, "but if it's about work I don't care what they call me, as long as they call me."

In the 1970s changes in public taste further challenged chart success and diversified James's material. You can hear Norman Whitfield and Curtis Mayfield riffs in the grooves of some of her '70s albums, although what was left of the Chess braintrust tried to steer her in a rock direction. Even Jerry Wexler, long a fan, was invited on board to do some sessions with her in 1975. Her street cred among rock royalty like the Rolling Stones got James the opening slot on some of their tours, but most of the 1980s became a fallow time for the singer, who got rid of a heroin addiction only to fall prey to the trendy allure of cocaine. She would resurface on Island Records in 1989 with two new albums, Seven Year Itch and Stickin' to My Guns, which led to interest from Elektra, for which Jerry Wexler produced The Right Time in 1992.

By '93 James was triumphantly ushered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, then signed to Private Music to release Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday, which would go on to be her first Grammy award-winning album. Her momentum only increased with the publication in 1995 of her autobiography Rage to Survive, co-authored with David Ritz. James's classic recordings started turning up in tv ads, and the hip-hop-suffused r&b world began to pay attention to her -- first as a source of samples, and later as a performance role model. 2001 saw her inducted both into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, a trifecta of honors that surprised even her staunchest fans.

She returned to the Grammys in 2003 to accept a Lifetime Acheivement Award, then won yet another Grammy for her 2005 blues album Let's Roll. All this activity built an audience for the 2008 film Cadillac Records, which masquerades as the slightly fictionalized story of Chess Records, but really functions as a thinly veiled, slightly inaccurate Etta James biopic (without the usual props or book-adaptation fees). Hyped as a star-vehical for Beyoncé Knowles along the lines of Diana Ross's turn as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, the movie ultimately lost its narrative focus and altered too many facts to do James justice. James was gracious about Beyoncé's portrayal upon the film's release, but may have soured over the lost chance for a better movie made from her own autobiography.

It can be argued, however, that mystic forces in the world conspire to do justice to the talent of Etta James. Every time her career seemed down for the count, one happy miracle or another would bounce her back off the mat. Even a diagnosis of Alzheimer's didn't prevent a 71-year-old James from picking up her ninth Female Artist of the Year award from the Blues Foundation in 2009, and Etta continued touring until hospitalized for a bacterial infection early in 2010. When her leukemia was discovered in 2011, it still didn't prevent one final CD, The Dreamer, from coming out that November. The songs on The Dreamer are arranged to enhance Etta's flawless tone and diction, but to leave the voice naked and clear.

"Cigarettes & Coffee" and "Misty Blue" are two of the prettiest things in James's repertoire. They have a soft, Memphis blues feel that brings to mind vintage Otis Redding. Even her cover of Guns 'N' Roses' "Welcome To The Jungle" is dignified and nuanced, a reminder that Etta could always sing any and everything and make it sound like she wrote it.

Sexually active long before cutting her first single, James had both the pipes and the real-life experience to play a bad girl with a heart of gold on record. No aspect of street life was a mystery to her; her entourage often included drag queens, gangsters, gang chicks and prostitutes. Married to the same man since 1969, and a supportive mother to her two adult sons, Etta was also a student of bourgeois propriety and understood the thin line between sin and salvation better than most. She adored Little Richard, with whom she did her first national tour and who she respected for having "the guts to be a king and queen all at the same time." This earthy sophistication is why whether expressing the fulfilled longing of "At Last" or the witchy outlaw passion of Randy Newman's "Let's Burn Down the Cornfield" (which she recorded in the mid-70s while undergoing drug rehab at Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital) James remained one of those rare singers who could always nail the most abstract or inexpressible sentiment with the merest shift in vocal inflection.

While shopping at Housing Works a few weeks ago, I heard "I'd Rather Go Blind" by Etta James come over the store's soundsystem. Only a woman who had lived and loved a lot harder than I have could convincingly deliver that chorus, her voice giving me instant emotional access to why she would choose to be blinded rather than see her man leaving her -- making me understand why I might, too. Such was the performer we lost last week.

Published in: Village Voice, January 23, 2012