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Etta James: rebel with a cause

Stanley O. Williford | 1/20/2012, 11:51 a.m.

Dorothy, her mother, had been an orphan, and she bore Etta at 14. She constantly preached caution concerning men, but hardly practiced what she preached. She was addicted to both men and night life, and would often be gone from her daughter for weeks at a time. Dorothy had no compunction about casting Etta off on others, but would come crashing back into her life months later, often upsetting both the child and those caring for her.

Etta spent much of her life trying to reconcile her love-hate relationship with Dorothy, whom she dubbed the glamorous, "Midnight Lady." And in her 50s she finally got the nerve--and the opportunity--to meet Rudolf Wanderone, or "Minnesota Fats," the man who she suspected was her father.

Her birth name, Jamesetta, was a combination of the names of her mother's sister, Cozetta, and her Uncle James--thus, Jamesetta. The couple became her legal guardians while Dorothy, her teenage mother, served time in reform school. Etta believed it was her aunt and uncle who first noticed her musical nature while she was an infant.

"They said I was fixated on jukeboxes," Etta wrote in her book, "Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story," a biography written with David Ritz. "I'd toddle over and point to one particular song--'Honky Tonk Blues' by Meade Lux Lewis, a hot boogie-woogie instrumental. I'd holler until someone put a nickel in the box and played that number. Then with my little ringlets bouncing on top of my head, I'd do a dance and sing along with baby sounds. The second it was through, I'd start crying until someone played the damned thing again."

Her Aunt Cozetta was an unapologetic prostitute--clearly not the kind of person to care for her sister's baby. As soon as she could, Dorothy gave Etta to a childless middle-age couple, Lula and Jesse Rogers, her landlords at the time. They would be the closest Etta would come to having a real mother and father.

For Lula, a God-fearing woman, having the child to care for was the equivalent of an early ticket to heaven. From the time Etta began talking, she called her "Mama Lula."

"She was the woman who wound up raising me while Dorothy ran in and out of my life like a crazy nightmare," Etta wrote in "Rage to Survive." As Etta put it: "One mother was nurturing while the other was neurotic."

Lula attended St. Paul Baptist Church at Naomi and 21st Street, and it could not have been a better musical milieu for Etta. Even as a child, she fell in love with the Gospel music. "We had one of the biggest, baddest, hippest choirs anywhere, the Echoes of Eden," she wrote. "Our choirmaster, Professor James Earle Hines, was my first and heaviest musical mentor, the cat who taught me to sing."

Among the stars who attended St. Paul were Gospel greats Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Sallie Martin Singers. Joe Adams, then a well-known deejay who would later manage Ray Charles, was also a member. There were outstanding female singers at the church. However, as a child Etta was attracted to the male singers. She imitated their style and sound, especially that of Professor Hines.