Surviving and Thriving : Etta James Outlines the Ups and Downs of Her Music Career in the Book ‘Rage to Survive’
“One thing I can do for sure is I can tell a story,” Etta James says. “Rage is not a soft word, and neither is survival, but both of those are very true about my life.”
The 57-year-old singer, a large, imposing woman whose smooth complexion belies her years, leans back, frowns, looks around and then shouts to an assistant.
“Can you get that air conditioning on? It’s hot in here.”
“Here” is the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood, where James’ management has arranged for a series of interviews to publicize the release of her autobiography, “Rage to Survive,” written with David Ritz, and published by Villard Books.
The publicity campaign, with two nights of book-signings and a variety of media contacts, has begun to wear a bit on James, who acknowledges that she’d be far happier to be vegging out back at her comfortable home in Riverside.
“I’m not a big lover of sitting down and signing thousands of books,” she says. “But I like the chance it gives me to hear what some of my fans have to say.”
The air conditioning adjusted, she returns to her thoughts about the book, a tell-it-all saga of life at the cutting edge of the rhythm and blues world, from the ‘50s to the present. James has left few dark episodes unexplored, describing in detail her involvement with heroin and cocaine, her experiences with check-kiting and domestic abuse, and a depiction of the months spent in rehab in Tarzana that eventually led to her recovery. It is written in occasionally rough language, and is sometimes painful to read, but it is excruciatingly honest.
“It’s all in the book, and it’s all out in the open,” she said, with a thoughtful nod of her head. “At first, I worried about the people in my neighborhood who might read the book, because where I live, there are a lot of strait-laced people.
“But now that it’s out there, I’m more concerned about my fans knowing me. I mean, my next-door neighbor’s fine, but the people who come up to me after shows and say, ‘Oh, your songs really carried me a long way’ or ‘You have really given me a reason to fight to live,’ are the ones I did the book for.”
Despite its penetrating view of her personal life, James, who appears Sunday as part of the Blues Music Festival ’95 at the Greek Theatre, has elected to release “Rage to Survive” at a time when her career otherwise has been on a remarkable up slope. Born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938 in Los Angeles, she made her recording debut in 1955 for Johnny Otis with a tune titled “The Wallflower,” better known as “Roll With Me Henry.” An earthy response to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me Annie,” it reached No. 2 on the R&B; charts and was quickly followed by “Good Rockin’ Daddy.” But it was not until she signed with Chess in 1960 that James’ career kicked into high gear with a decade full of hits. Her work from this period was one of the flash points of popular music, a powerful influence upon the blendings of R&B;, pop and country that emerged in the ‘60s as rock music.
But by the ‘70s, problems with drugs, alcohol and relationships led to intermittent patterns of departure from and return to the music scene until the mid-'80s, when James finally kicked her various habits and took personal charge of her career.
The turning point came when “The Wallflower” showed up in the soundtrack for the hit movie “Back to the Future.”
“A friend of mine called one day,” she remembers, “and said, ‘Did you know you have a song in one of the biggest movies around?’ And I said, ‘No, what’s that?’ And they said, ‘ “Back to the Future.” ’ My first thought was ‘Oh, no, not again. Oh, my God, they did this 30 years ago, and now they’re pulling the same stuff.’ ”
To James, “the same stuff” meant that she anticipated a repeat of the kind of exploitation that often happened to African American artists in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Charged, and often overcharged, for a multiplicity of questionable and usually enormous studio and professional costs, few performers managed to earn enough royalties to pay off the debts that had been built up.
“When I was with Chess Records,” she says, “I never made any royalties. In fact, I had a debt of about $300,000. And it followed me, it really followed me.”
So it’s not surprising that when James heard about “Back to the Future,” she simply assumed it was going to be more of the same with MCA.
“I went out and got an attorney,” James recalls. “A really cool guy, and what he did was to go after the company for using ‘Henry’ without paying me, and that brought everything else back up, even though the statute of limitations had run out. And it ended up that MCA was nice enough to make a deal.”
An appearance in the Chuck Berry tribute film, “Hail, Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll” followed, along with albums, first for Island Records and currently for Private Music.
Earlier this year, she won her first Grammy Award for “Mystery Lady” (Private), a collection of songs assembled in homage to Billie Holiday (as well as to James’ mother, Dorothy, a mystery lady in her own life, as well).
Remarkably, the award was granted in the recording academy’s jazz category, after she had failed to win a Grammy for numerous previous rhythm & blues nominations. But her passionate renderings of Holiday-associated songs--now followed up by “Time After Time,” another album of jazz standards--revealed a surprising new aspect of James’ talent.
“I know some people found that weird,” James says with a chuckle. “But the fact is I’ve always been into jazz.
“When I was a teen-ager living with my mother in San Francisco,” she recalls, “back in the days of hi-fis, my mother would take me to see Stan Kenton. She thought that was really hip. She had a Stan Kenton album that Lee Konitz played ‘Lover Man’ on, and whoa, that was something, but I didn’t want her to know how I felt. She always wanted me to listen to that kind of jazz, but told her I was into Guitar Slim and Roy Milton and stuff like that--just the way kids today are into rap music. But when my mom wasn’t there, which was most of the time, I’d be playing Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Lee Konitz.”
James also has been turning up unexpectedly on television. Three years ago, a recording of her hit version of “At Last” suddenly surfaced as the soundtrack for a Jaguar commercial. She said she had no advance word of its use.
“All of a sudden I was looking at television and here comes the commercial,” James says. “And now it’s been running for about three years. They just change the cars. I think they went in and re-mastered it, though, because it sounds real good. And each time it runs, I get paid something.
“Same thing with the Diet Coke commercial, you know, with ‘Just Make Love.’ They must have just got the track and used it. And that’s cool, so long as I get paid for it.”
What is most important to James, however, is that she finally has attained a level of serenity in her personal life. Now celebrating her 40th year in show business, she stays as far away as she can from the elements in the business that nearly ruined her--spending as much time as possible happily ensconced with her husband, Artis, and two sons, Donto and Sametto, in a suburban home complete with swimming pool and spa.
“I’m doing things the way I want to do them now,” she says. “I don’t want to sign any more contracts at my age. And I don’t want to have to get permission from anybody if I want to do something else.
“My word is my bond. I don’t want somebody to be able to stick me in a can as soon as I don’t bounce the way they want me to go, and then get put on the shelf and sit there for five years. If I want to do a soundtrack or a movie or a commercial, I don’t want to have to go get permission.”
Her career back up to speed for perhaps the fourth or fifth time in her long years before the public, James is particularly pleased that “Rage to Survive” is finally finished and in print.
“I have read so many different versions of it,” she explains. “First it was 500 pages, then it was 200, then it went back up to 300. And you get kind of tired of so many things that have to be straightened out.
“I read the published version for the first time on a five-hour trip to New York. And, you know, it was so exciting that it seemed as though my heart started beating faster in some of the parts. It was like I was right there, right back when all that stuff was happening. So I think we got it right,” James says. “And I think it’s a pretty good story.”