SHE’S NO PAULA ABDUL : There’s Nothing Diminutive About R&B; Diva Etta James
Etta James doesn’t claim to have seen or done it all, although she surely has seen, done and felt a lot since first emerging as a teen-age R&B; star 37 years ago. It takes a substantial fund of life experience to be a first-rate singer of blues, soul and smoky saloon-standard ballads, and James is one of the best.
The problem, as James informs a would-be interviewer moments after taking his call, is that she feels as if she already has said it all.
“You get so tired of being interviewed,” James begins, in a tone of voice that, as politely as possible, hints that she probably would rather be out on her lawn weeding crabgrass. “They ask you the same questions all over again: ‘What about Johnny Otis?’ (The Los Angeles bandleader discovered James and helped launch her career at 16 with the 1955 hit “Roll With Me, Henry.”) ‘What about when you were on the road with the Rolling Stones?’ (Keith Richards picked James as the opening act for two Stones tours in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.) It’s a nightmare. How much does a person have to talk about?”
Quite a bit, as it turns out. Instantly jettisoning all questions about Johnny Otis and the Rolling Stones, the interviewer wonders instead about a more recent development in James’ life--her move to Riverside County’s suburbia a few years ago after spending most of her life in Los Angeles.
In a moment, James is enthusing about duck ponds, pet rabbits and canyon views. Far from a nightmare, the interview becomes just a matter of rolling with Etta, who is as grand and authoritative a talker as she is a singer.
Flinging saucy opinions about the current state of blues and pop, exploring her tangled emotional relationship with her mother, confessing to being something of a pushy stage mom to her two sons (both aspiring musicians) or commenting on what it’s like to be a singer of great physical girth in an MTV era that values the style of Calvin Klein over the substance of Aretha Franklin or Bessie Smith, James has the confidence to say what’s on her mind without hedging or holding back.
As one of the key figures in the development of black, urban blues and R&B;, it seems a little strange to hear James extolling the joys of suburban living. She moved three years ago from Athens Heights, a middle-class black neighborhood in Los Angeles, to a home near Riverside.
“I got sick and tired of burglar alarms on your car going off all night and people stealing your radio,” said James, who still owns her Los Angeles house. “When I get in there, my neck starts tightening up; I feel real stressed. You see the walls with the graffiti, the reds and the blues” signifying street-gang turf claims.
Now, James said, “I live (high) in a canyon. I can look down and see the lights (of homes below). It looks like you’re in Sicily, and you’re looking down on Palermo. I love it. I can walk out of my house barefoot. I’ve got two big German shepherds, and I ride them in my pickup truck. My husband dug a pool and a spa; we have a pond for the ducks, and the rabbits swim in it. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”
Actually, James said, the country life was something she dreamed of from the time she was a small girl. Born Jamesetta Hawkins, she was raised by Lula and Jesse Rogers, a well-off couple who took her in when she was a year old (her mother was a 15-year-old tenant in a building owned by the Rogers). James, who refers to the older couple as her grandparents, recalls her early years as mainly a stable and idyllic time.
“They’re the ones who paid for all my lessons,” she said of the Rogers. “I had drama and singing and piano. They’re the ones who put me into the church,” where, starting at the age of 5, she began to develop as a gospel singer. James got her first taste of countryliving on trips to a rural San Bernardino vacation home that her foster parents owned.
It wasn’t all idyllic, though. James said she was confused by her family situation: “I thought this little old lady and this little old man were my mom and dad. Then this young girl (her real mother, Dorothy Hawkins, who had moved to San Francisco) would come visit me. She was very glamorous. She would go to the boxing matches and the glamorous nightclubs. The other kids used to say, ‘Your real mom, she’s a movie star.’ She looked like Lena Horne. She was just one of those fly chicks. She was more or less a gypsy.”
James said she was troubled by stomach problems as a girl--brought on, she thinks, by her uncertain family situation. Nervousness over singing before church audiences would make it worse, she said--until the music began. In singing, she found calm.
“I used to have gastritis, extreme nervous stomach,” she said, “and I could psychologically make myself sick by worrying about it--'Oh my God, I’ve got to put on this robe and go sing.’ I’d be terrified all the way, but once I got that robe on, everything would go away. I remember saying to myself, ‘I wish I could do this all the time.’ ”
James said she still feels transformed when she performs: “When I’m not singing, I’m more passive. I’m bashful. I walk on eggshells, like. But on the stage it’s a whole ‘nother personality.”
When James was 12, her foster mother died, and Dorothy Hawkins took custody of her and brought her to San Francisco. Her “very good, sheltered life” gave way to far less stable circumstances. As James put it in a 1989 Times interview, “I went from being this nice little church girl to living in a rooming house. I just turned incorrigible, drinkin’ wine, smokin’ weed and running the streets.”
Instead of singing in church, James began singing rhythm and blues on street corners. “I liked the blues and the feeling it gave me,” she said. “It gave me a naughty-girl feeling.”
Her mother didn’t approve of her taste in music. “I remember she came home one day, and I was playing Guitar Slim’s ‘The Things I Used to Do.’ She snatched that 78 off and said, ‘What are you, some gutbucket person?’ Billie Holiday was her favorite. She said that was what I should be doing--listening to jazz,” James said.
When she was 15, James landed an impromptu audition with Johnny Otis while he was playing in San Francisco. The underage singer joined the bandleader in Los Angeles, where she moved in with Otis and his family. In 1954, her first hit, “Roll With Me, Henry” (released as “The Wallflower” to disguise the song’s bawdy nature), launched her career. In 1960, James began to record for Chess Records. There, she scored a string of hits through the decade, including such signature songs as “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “Tell Mama.” Her catalogue includes sassy, humorous blues and party songs, probing ballads that use all the emotional devices of a classic soul singer to plead or ache, and some of those jazz-inspired standards that her mother probably wished she would have stuck to all along.
Actually, James said, her mother has never seen her perform.
“She says I got my singing from her, and I think she wanted to be a singer. I did what she wanted to do. It belongs to the psychologists at this point,” James said. “When I sang at the Vine Street Bar and Grill (in Hollywood) three or four years ago, friends of mine say they saw her standing outside looking in the window.”
Things are different between James and her two sons. Donto, 24, plays drums in her band, and she said that Sametto, 15, is a bassist who has been clamoring to be let in on her shows next summer when she tours the blues-festival circuit in Europe.
“I’m like a black Jewish mom that’s gonna be real pushy. People tell me it’s wrong to push them into show business. But I’m in show business. I’ve got a name, and you want at least one kid to carry the James name on. One of my ambitions is to sit in an audience and watch one of the boys, or both, get some kind of (music) award,” she said.
James, who will be 54 on Jan. 25, still has ambitions for her own music.
After falling out of the limelight for most of the 1980s, she re-established herself in 1988 with “Seven Year Itch,” a fine, tradition-minded R&B; album on Island Records. “Stickin’ to My Guns,” from 1990, included more strong vocal performances, but it strained to give James a contemporary sound. The production included synthesizers, drum machines and a guest appearance by rapper Def Jef.
James said she took over the production herself last year, recording a third album for Island that she intended to call “Here It Is.” But the label shelved the album, and James said she asked to be let out of her recording contract.
James said the label had given her a budget of $75,000 to make the album, “which is no money nowadays to make a record. I think it turned out real good, but all I heard was that they were going to put it in the can. Maybe they felt like I shouldn’t have produced it, or thought I did a bad job. It didn’t seem like Island knew what to do with my stuff anyway.”
Asked for comment, an Island spokesman issued a short prepared statement, saying only that James’ third album for the label “did not meet with the approval of Island’s executive and A&R; departments, and Etta was released from her contract so that she could pursue other options.”
James says the option she has chosen is to return to deep soul roots. She said she is about to sign a new major-label recording contract and is set to record a new album in March. The producer, she said, will be Jerry Wexler, who produced classic records by Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett.
“I’m going to do the old stuff. Great, great songs, and I’m gonna do ‘em rough and tough, and like they should be done,” James said.
The idea, she said, is to offer an alternative to smoother, contemporary R&B; styles and exploit “the momentum I’ve gathered with the blues festivals” that have been a staple of her touring schedule. “We’re having a whole revolution. That circle is turning around again” toward more raw, blues-based sounds, she said. “Stevie Ray Vaughan kicked the ball off.”
Like a lot of veteran, old-line blues and R&B; singers, James laments that she doesn’t find many black fans joining the roots revival that’s indebted to black American culture.
“A lot of people think the blues is depressing, but that’s not the blues I’m singing. When I’m singing blues, I’m singing life. People that can’t stand to listen to the blues, they’ve got to be phonies,” she said. “I’ve got neighbors (near the home she still owns in Los Angeles) like that. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I don’t care if they read it, ‘cause I hate their guts. They want to be bourgeois black people. They’ll invite their mama and auntie over to the house; they’ll shut all the doors and windows and fry catfish and play B.B. King. When their bourgeois friends are there, they open up the windows and play Kenny G.”
In a glossy, music-video age, James, who has the bulk of about three Paula Abduls, knows that she doesn’t fit in with the values that have elevated scrawny-voiced pinups to megastardom.
“That Paula Abdul, she’s awful. She’s horrible. She can’t sing. Everybody gets (mad) at me; they say, ‘Etta, why do you always say these things?’ It’s obvious she can’t sing,” James said. “It’s obvious Janet Jackson is one of the Jacksons and she can dance her little butt off and look good. It’s the visuals. They don’t give a dang whether you can sing or not.”
James has the voice but not the physique for today’s video selling, with its emphasis on sex and fashion.
“I’m not discouraged by it,” she said. “I’ve got a certain amount of confidence in what I do, and I know I’m as powerful as any other singer in any other era. We know a lot of great singers who have been big. I know that somewhere along the line, my kind and what I did helped pave the way so these guys can show up in their high-tech, multimillion-dollar videos.”
Onstage, James isn’t one to let her girth get in the way of injecting a bawdy, over-exaggerated sexuality into her act.
“Where (most video chanteuses) are going straight for sex, I’m going for sex and humor,” James said. “I’m trying to make it a little more visual. I got a lot of that from working in Europe,” where she found that gyrating body language helped surmount language barriers.
“I’ve been overweight most of my life,” James said. “I can say I’m complexed about it, but I don’t let it get in my way of singing a song. I know I would be much better off if I was lighter. Being thinner would help my health. But I don’t think, ‘I’m not going to do that date ‘cause I’m fat’ or ‘I’m totally depressed about it.’ ”
Still, James said she hopes to confront her weight problem, likening the challenge to her past confrontations with drug addiction. James kicked a heroin habit in the 1970s, only to fall into cocaine and alcohol abuse several years later.
“We went on tour with the Stones, and we started the cocaine trip. (I thought), ‘This is not heroin. We’ll do a little cocaine, a little liquor. Something to brighten you up, because everybody’s getting a little high and it’s the in thing to do.’ In 1981, I woke up and said, ‘That’s it for me.’ I prayed, and it was just one of those sincere prayers--that I wouldn’t do this anymore, and I needed the strength. I made promises that I would never touch that anymore, and I didn’t,” she said.
At 5 feet, 11 inches, James doesn’t envision a svelte, demure Etta but a big, boisterous one in fighting trim.
“I feel most comfortable when I’m about 230 pounds,” James said. “Then I feel good; I’m statuesque. I sing good, and I feel like a mountain.”
Who: Etta James.
When: Friday, Jan. 17, at 9 p.m.
Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.
Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in Esplanade Plaza.
Where to call: (714) 496-8930.