Etta James: rebel with a cause
Stanley O. Williford | 1/20/2012, 11:51 a.m.
Etta James, the big-voiced singer with the rowdy persona, has died after a long battle with leukemia. She was 73.
With her dyed blond hair piled high, eyes cat-shaped by mascara and big hoop earrings, she cultivated a whorish look and a loud, blustery attitude that made her seem tough, but by her own admission she was mushy inside and often confused and fearful.
The kind of men she attracted--users, pushers, pimps, tough guys--could easily see through the hard shell and play to the soft inner core. Still, she usually wound up having an affair with them and, of course, they proved to be bad, often violent choices.
But Etta was only acting out the life she had been exposed to by her mother and her aunt; a life that put her on a lifelong search for her dad or a substitute protector.
Etta had her first hit song--"Roll With Me, Henry"--which she wrote when she was 14, followed soon after by another hit, "Good Rockin' Daddy." But perhaps her most enduring song was "At Last," a jazzy ballad she recorded 50-some years ago at the age of 22. "Something's Got a Hold on Me" was written with church in mind, she said, but it turned into a boisterous rocker that showcased her big voice.
James lived all-out, and her lifestyle made her both famous and infamous, as catalogued in several of her best-selling recordings. She had a rebellious streak that lasted much of her life. In her teen years during the early '50s, she was defiant and brazen, much like many of today's urban youth in their sagging trousers, showing their backside to a neglectful, unnurturing world,
Although she long ago came to be revered internationally as a singer, as late as 1972 she and her husband, Artis Mills, were committing serious crimes to supply their raging drug habits.
Perpetually broke due to her heavy consumption of drugs, she was in and out of jails for writing bad checks, phony prescriptions, narcotics, or jumping bail, which she did in Alaska.
Musically, Etta would eventually develop a reputation for bridging the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll. Rolling Stone ranked her No. 22 on its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and No. 62 on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists. She was the winner of six Grammys and 17 Blues Music Awards. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of 1993, the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2001, and the Grammy Hall of Fame in both 1999 and 2008.
Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles on Jan. 23, 1938, she was a product of two mysteries.
The first was her mother, Dorothy, whom she adored as a child but who seemed almost devoid of any motherly instincts.
The second mystery was father, a man she longed to know. Although she would never be completely sure, she came to suspect that he was the famous White pool hustler--Minnesota Fats--who was known to have a penchant for "colored" girls and who frequented Central Avenue, the city's nightlife mecca in the '30s '40s and '50s.