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“They rant and rave about Tell Mama,” said Etta James, “about how I sang the shit out of it. I wish I could agree. I don’t like being cast in the role of the Great Earth Mother, the gal you come to for comfort and easy sex. Nothing was easy then. My career was building up but my life was falling apart.” (1)
Etta James had an erratic life from the start. Born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938 in Los Angeles to her 14-year old unwed mother, Dorothy Hawkins. She never knew her father but friends and relatives and even James speculate that it was Rudolph Wonderone, a white pool shark who later became known as Minnesota Fats. The mixed parentage contributed to her distinctive looks — light skin, almond-shaped eyes, turned-up nose and natural red hair.
Dorothy was too young and irresponsible to raise a child so that task was passed to relatives and friends. At age five, Jamesetta, while living with her grandparents, was introduced to gospel music at St. Paul’s Baptist Church. The child’s voice was a natural for the choir and she became a soloist for the group when they appeared on local radio. "When I came up, a premium was placed on good singing, strong singing, real singing," James recalled. "This was true in church, and just as true on the streets. There was no faking it, no room for almost-rans. Too many guys could really blow, harmonize, slide up and down the scale from baritone to falsetto without missing a trick. I was lucky to have the lungs to keep up with these bad boys. When it came to singing, I was no shrinking violet." (2)
Eventually, she lived with her unofficial foster parents, Jesse and Lulu Rogers, who raised her through age 12. In 1950, Lulu passed away and Jamesetta moved to San Francisco to live with her birth mother. "She was a kid, and I had feelings about all that kind of stuff for years, and I went to therapy about it. But then, as I got older, I realized that she really did the best for me. She put me in a lovely (foster) home. The people were lovely to me. They never said that they were my real parents. I always knew I had this good-looking, high-stepping mom, and she was only 14 years older than me. What would she have done with me? Would I have been singing today? Would I have been anything?" (3)
Dorothy provided no structure for Jamesetta as she approached her teenage years. "She was never there when I got off from school," James recalled, "so I could pretty much do what I wanted to do … drinking, smoking weed." Violence and substance abuse were now constants in James's life and she would maintain a difficult, combative relationship with her mother across many decades. (5)
In spite of problems at home, Jamesetta became more involved in her music. She formed a group with two friends, sisters Abye and Jean Mitchell and dubbed themselves The Creolettes. Good enough to work events around town, their fortunes changed when one of the sisters met Johnny Otis (Willie And The Hand Jive). “I ran away from home. I stayed with Abye and Jean. We wrote an answer song to Work With Me, Annie (by Hank Ballard) that was titled Roll With Me, Henry. Abye, who was 24, went to a dance featuring the Johnny Otis Band.
Later that night, Abye called Jean and I and told us she had spoken to Johnny Otis about their group and he wants to hear us…now. We were 15 maybe 16 and she wanted us to come to the band’s hotel. We thought, ‘Yeh, right!’ The Johnny Otis got on the phone and convinced us this offer was on the level. We got into a cab and auditioned for him in his hotel room.” (3)
Otis wanted to take the girls to Los Angeles and make a record. Since they were underage, he asked if he could get permission from their parents to travel with him. "But I knew my mother wasn't going to let me go," James said. "And he said, 'Can I speak with your mother?' I said, 'No, I can't find her right now. She's working.' And he said, 'Well, can you go home and get permission from your mother, get something in writing stating that you can travel and have her sign it and date it.' I said, 'Oh yeah, I can do that.' So, sure enough, that's what I did. I went home, I wrote the note." (3) The girls were on the band’s bus for the trip to LA.
It was Thanksgiving Eve of 1953 when Jamesetta and the Mitchell Sisters stepped into a Hollywood recording studio. Etta recalled the session. “My first experience in the studio was good. I felt strong, wasn’t intimidated, and felt free to be myself. My personality got all over that record.” (4)
The recording session went well and Otis helped Jamesetta and the Mitchell Sisters sign a recording deal with Modern Records. With the Otis band backing up the girls and Richard Berry (who later wrote Louie Louie) singing responses, Roll With Me, Henry became The Wallflower, as Modern Records believed the original title was too explicit.
Otis also made some other changes. He transposed Jamesetta to Etta James and changed the Creolettes to The Peaches, Etta’s childhood nickname. Hank Ballard, Otis and Etta shared the writing credit.
The Wallflower hit the Billboard R&B chart on February 19, 1955 and eventually climbed its way to #1 where it perched for two weeks. (6) As was the custom in mid-50s through mid-60s, a hit R&B song became fodder for white audiences after being recycled by a white artist. In this case, it was Georgia Gibbs, who entered the pop charts a month later with her retitled version, Dance With Me Henry (Wallflower). Gibbs rode the song to #1 where it stayed for three weeks in May. (6)
James next single flopped as Modern rode the Henry story into the ground. Good Rockin’ Daddy was a transition song for Etta as The Peaches were phased out and replaced by The Dreamers, which included Jesse Belvin (Goodnight My Love) before he went solo. Released in late 1955, the song topped at #6 on the R&B chart. (6) With two bona fide top ten hits, Etta hit the road.
As a teenager on tour with no adult guidance traveling with Otis, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Ike and Tina Turner and Little Richard, Etta embraced the lifestyle of debauchery. This is where her life-long battle with drugs began. "I was off and running down the road of hard-rocking rhythm and blues. And if I'm thinking now about what it all means, at the time I wasn't doing much thinking at all; I was just living." (2) It was also the time she dyed her hair platinum.
"I had a real nice figure and I was tall (Etta’s height was listed as 5’3”). And I remember this singer Joyce Bryant. ... She wore fishtail gowns, sequined fishtail gowns, and she was black, and she had the nerve to wear platinum hair. And then I also loved Jayne Mansfield, because Mansfield had the blonde hair and had like the poochie lips and the mole and all this. So I think what I did, it was kind of combine [them]. ... I wanted to look grown, you know; I wanted to wear tall high-heeled shoes, and fishtail gowns, and big, long rhinestone earrings." (3)
Photo courtesy of Afro Newspaper/Golub/Getty Images.
Starting in 1956, her records were labeled Etta “Miss Peaches” James. She traveled to New Orleans where she worked with the best local musicians (Lee Allen, Harold Battiste and Earl Palmer) and produced some highly acclaimed work. However, none of it sparked radio play or sold very much. Modern let her go and Etta hooked up (personally and professionally) with Harvey Fuqua (leader of The Moonglows). Through Fuqua and Moonglows member Bobby Lester, Etta signed a recording deal with Leonard Chess of Chess Records in Chicago. "I saw the switch from Modern to Chess as an upgrade," James said in Rage. "I was tired of doing quickie teenage rockin', humping and bumping ditties. Besides, I was no longer a teenager. I was 22 and sophisticated. Or at least I wanted to be sophisticated." (2)
On November 15, 1960, her debut album for the Chess Records subsidiary Argo, At Last! was released. James and her producers, Fuqua and Ralph Bass, captured the record-buying public with a blend of heart-breaking ballads (All I Could Do Was Cry, At Last, Trust In Me and Fool That I Am). All four songs hit both the Billboard Pop and R&B charts with the first three landing in the R&B Top Ten. (6) "Leonard Chess went up and down the halls of Chess announcing, 'Etta's crossed over! Etta's crossed over!' " James said in Rage. "I still don't know exactly what that meant, except that maybe more white people were listening to me." (2)
At the same time audiences were listening to her ballads, Etta blasted some powerful R&B tunes. Something's Got a Hold On Me and Stop the Wedding in '62; Pushover, Two Sides To Every Story, and Would It Make Any Difference To You in '63; and Baby, What You Want Me To Do and Loving You More Every Day in 1964 landed on both the Pop and R&B charts. Etta, indeed, crossed over!
This newfound success was undermined by her chaotic life, with a penchant for addiction, petty crime (she "started working a cash-checking scheme") and romantic entanglements. "I guess you'd call me cocky," Etta said. "My cockiness got me in trouble. Some people go through a period — maybe a year or two or three — where they rail against authority. In my case, the rebel period lasted for what seemed like several lifetimes. I was a fool who was smart enough to know I was a fool — and dumb enough not to care. Now that's a real fool. Truth is, I enjoyed being a fool."
And in the early '60s, James' substance abuse took a dark turn. "More than booze or weed or cocaine, heroin hit me hard. I loved it. Heroin became my drug of choice. It took me where I wanted to go — far away, out of it — and in a hurry ... I was living in that place where junkies love to live, the never-never land of unreality, the place of spaced-out cool. I got hooked real quick."
James' habits derailed her career path: she spent four months in Cook County Jail in 1964 and moved back to LA in 1965. "I found work when I had to. I was essentially working for my habit." (2)
As the summer of 1967 approached, Etta, now 29, found herself at another low point in her life, which consisted of spells at the USC County Hospital and incarceration at Sybil Brand, a women’s prison in Los Angeles. In an effort to restart a sagging career, Leonard Chess personally took Etta to Sheffield, Alabama to record at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals under the watchful eye of famed producer, Rick Hall for her next album. The move was also strategically designed to keep James out of trouble working in a small town atmosphere away from the temptations of a large city.
Photo courtesy of House Of Fame LLC/MIchael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
From the first hit record recorded at FAME (Jimmy Hughes Steal Away in 1963), the studio became the hotbed for a number of rock’s elite including the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Solomon Burke and Percy Sledge. It was at FAME Studios where Aretha Franklin found her groove as the Queen Of Soul, with her first hit on the Atlantic label, I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You).
Hall thought she could make something out of a song Clarence Carter had a minor hit with Tell Daddy. He changed it to Tell Mama, and persuaded James to record it against her protests that "it's not a hit and it's driving me crazy." (8)
Fans thought differently. Tell Mama (the album) was recorded between August 22-December 6, 1967. Backed by the studio musicians known as the Muscle Shoals Horns and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (some refer to them as the Swampers), the sessions produced two singles, Tell Mama and Security. Tell Mama hit the Hot 100 and R&B charts on November 18, 1967 reaching #23 on the Hot 100 while placing at #10 on the R&B list. Security entered the charts in March of 1968 placing at #35 and #11 respectively. (6) (7)
"Sometime later," Hall wrote in his 2015 autobiography The Man From Muscle Shoals, "when the record was high on the pop charts, I went backstage to visit her at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. She grabbed me and hugged me and cried, 'Rick Hall, I love you! I'm so glad you made me do that damn song! It brought my career back to life and I'll always be grateful.'" (8)
As gracious as Hall was to Etta, she still held her original feelings about the song. "There are folks who think Tell Mama is the Golden Moment of the Golden Age of Soul . . . I wish I could agree. Sure, the song made me money. It warmed Leonard Chess's heart to see the thing cross over to the pop charts, where it lingered for a long while. You might even say it became a classic. But I have to confess that it was never a favorite of mine. Never liked it. Never liked singing it — not then, not now ... Maybe it's just that I didn't like being cast in the role of the Great Earth Mother, the gal you come to for comfort and sex." (9)
James had a son, Donto, in 1968 but still battled her demons with drug abuse and bad personal choices, which led to a number of arrests. She tried to stay a step ahead of the law with moves around the country with stops from Alaska to Texas to New York. She married Artis Mills in 1969. Her drug problems landed her husband in jail from 1972 to 1982, when he took the fall for the couple’s arrest on heroin-possession charges.
In 1974 a judge sentenced her to a drug treatment program in lieu of serving time in prison. She was in the Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital for 17 months, at age 35. "It took a good-hearted judge to make me stop and examine myself. I was too stubborn, too willful, too hooked on junk to make the decision on my own. It didn't take a genius to understand how badly I needed therapy," James said in an excerpt from her 1995 autobiography, Rage to Survive. "Throughout L.A. County, The Family at Tarzana had a reputation as the marines of rehab. Basic training was hell." (10)
While still in treatment, she became romantically involved with a man who had been in and out of rehab. Within a year of leaving Tarzana, both were once again using drugs. She was in and out of jails and rehabilitation programs, writing bad checks, driving stolen cars. By the early '80s, she was scraping by, lucky to play occasional gigs for her die-hard gay fans at the Stud on Folsom Street. She turned 50 in the Betty Ford Clinic and, this time, the rehab worked. (11)
Still, she had her followers. "When I was in rehab at the same rehab center in the '70s, '74, '75, I got a letter from Keith Richards that had said that they were getting ready to do a tour," James said. "And the letter said, 'We would like to have you on tour with us. We love your music, but what you're doing right now is more important than what we could ever do with you, [and] we will be sure to come back and get you when you're ready. And that was really cool. That was when they came back in '78 and kept their word." (3) She did open for the Stones on their 1978 tour and played the Montreaux Jazz Festival. The success was brief. With bouts of drug and alcohol addiction prior to her stay at Betty Ford, she didn’t record for another ten years.
Late in her career, James was struggling with her weight, once estimated at about 400 pounds. The excessive weight was impeding her ability to tour and was causing serious health issues. James underwent a gastric bypass procedure and lost, according to some accounts, about 200 pounds while continuing to work. She told Essence in 2004 that she "didn't want to be fat anymore. I couldn't walk, and my doctor couldn't operate on my knee until I lost some weight. I was thinking that pretty soon they were going to have to bring me onstage with one of those harnesses they use for horses."
For several years she had performed on stage in a wheelchair. "I am so happy that I am alive and that I can walk," she told Ebony in a 2003 interview. "I've gone through so much in my life. I should have been dead a long time ago, but I am still here, and I am the happiest I've ever been." (10)
Etta was added to the Hollywood Walk Of Fame on April 18, 2003.
Photo courtesy of Vince Bucci/Getty Images.
In 2008, she was played onscreen by modern R&B diva Beyoncé Knowles in Cadillac Records, a film loosely based on the history of Chess Records. Knowles recorded a faithful cover of At Last for the film's soundtrack, and later performed the song at Barack Obama's 2009 inaugural ball.
Several days later, James made headlines when during a concert she said, "I can't stand Beyoncé, she had no business up there singing my song that I've been singing forever." Later the same week, James told The New York Times that the statement was meant to be a joke. "I didn't really mean anything...even as a little child, I've always had that comedian kind of attitude." But she was saddened that she hadn't been invited to perform the song. (12)
As she entered her 70s, Etta James began struggling with health issues. She was hospitalized in 2010 for a blood infection, along with other ailments. It was later revealed that the legendary singer suffered from dementia, and was receiving treatment for leukemia. Her medical problems came to light in court papers filed by her husband, Artis Mills. Mills sought to gain control over $1 million of James' money, but was challenged by James’ two sons, Donto and Sametto. The two parties later worked out an agreement. (13)
Shortly after her final studio album, The Dreamer, was released, Etta James was declared terminally ill. She was in the final stages of a bout with leukemia and had also been diagnosed with dementia and hepatitis C. She passed in her Riverside, CA home on January 20, 2012.
Etta James lip-syncs Tell Mama on Happening '68 dated February 16, 1968.
Etta makes her final TV appearance on Dancing With The Stars on April 7, 2009.
At Last still lives on as a TV commercial for Guinness.
1) Irvin, Jim, The Mojo Collection: 4th Edition, November 1, 2007, Page 93.
2) Papineau, Lou, Minnesota Public Radio: The Current, Etta James: R&B in its original sense, February 26, 2018, Link.
3) Gross, Terry, NPR, Etta James: The 1994 Fresh Air Interview, replayed on January 20, 2012. Link.
4) Ritz, David, Etta James, Rage To Survive: The Etta James Story, June 3, 2003, Page 48.
5) Cartwright, Garth, The Guardian, Etta James Obituary, January 20, 2012. Link.
6) Whitburn, Joel, Top R&B Singles 1942-1999, Page 219.
7) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Pages 278-279.
8) Lewis, Randy, Los Angeles Times, Rick Hall, the father of the Muscle Shoals sound, dies at 85, January 2, 2018, Link.
9) Ritz, David, Etta James, Rage To Survive: The Etta James Story, June 3, 2003, Page 173.
10) Taylor, B. Kimberly and Linda Dailey Paulson, Musician Guide, Etta James Biography, Link.
11) Selvin, Joel, San Francisco Chronicle, A thinner Etta James fills out new album, June 22, 2003. Link.
12) Deming, Mark, All Music Guide, Etta James Biography, Link.
13) A&E Television Networks, Biography, Etta James, April 27, 2017. Link.
Etta James at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 26, 2009.
Photo courtesy of Rick Diamond/Getty Images.
© 2018 Jerry Reuss