The incomparable Etta James was born in Los Angeles to a young woman of only fourteen; Etta believes her father was Minnesota Fats, the (white) pool shark, though she has no proof. She visited him a few times at the Heritage Hotel in Nashville, where he lives; he didn't deny knowing her mother, and showed her his diamond-studded pool cues. Etta feels that she and Minnesota Fats look and act alike.
Etta had something Fats didn't, though, and that's singing talent. It was obvious from an early age, and she was a singing star at the St. Paul Baptist Church, known for its Echoes of Eden choir, at the age of five. Her mother loved Billie Holiday, as did Etta, but the girl idolized and tried to emulate men: her choirmaster James Earl Hines, whose robes hung like wings as he raised his arms - "I wanted to fly like that. I wanted to sing like him." Other idols whose "big sound" and "big feeling" she copied: Guitar Slim, Ray Charles, Johnny "Guitar" Watson.
Etta was a wild teenager - "I guess you could call me a juvenile delinquent." She and her mother moved to San Francisco, and she'd skip school, drink wine, smoke weed, and hang out with her girlfriends. They became the Peaches, were discovered Johnny Otis, and were soon recording for Modern, who also cut records by John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, and B.B. King. Etta wrote what would be her first hit, "Roll With Me, Henry" at 15, an in-your-face reply to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie". It was the fifties, the era of teenage music, and Etta sang songs of teenage passion and rebellion, but became tired of white singers copying her songs for the white market and outselling her. She moved to Chess Records.
At Chess Etta did some back up singing, for example on Chuck Berry's "Almost Grown" and "Back in the USA". She also cut some songs with her first love, the doo-wop singer Harvey Fuqua, whose star was fading, though Etta didn't realize that. She was thrilled with show business, with her involvement in the life, with her famous boyfriend - "I was buying the boy diamond rings and hi-fi sets. He was my first love and don't you know I thought he'd be my last. Mercy, was I naive!"
Etta, always chubby, was also a wild thing. She favoured the dramatic black eyeliner of the time, and often had blond or red dyed hair, sometimes teased into a huge beehive hairdo. She took a lot of drugs; she later recalled that Leonard Chess, her boss at Chess Records, didn't pay her royalties: "If he had paid me all my bread, it all would have gone for dope that might have killed me." He put her in rehab a number of times, paid her bills, kept the deed for her house (so she wouldn't sell it to support her habit), and didn't lecture her. "In his own way, he protected me," she said. And well he might have: Etta was a money-maker for Chess, recording hits throughout the sixties. Etta is also legendary for her moodiness; when she's up, all is radiant, when not, duck.
Her first big hit for them was "All I Could Do Was Cry", a triangle song about two women in love with the same man. The producer, Ralph Bess (who had also done James Brown's great hit "Please Please Please") remembered that Etta was crying her eyes out after one take. Though the band wanted to do another, he told them to forget it, for "how much more soul could I get from a singer?" It rose to #2 on R&B charts. Other memorable hits from the Chess years include "In the Basement", "Trust in Me", "Fool That I Am", and many more.
Etta's phenomenal output includes classic R&B numbers, soul, rock, as well covers of jazz classics, somehow surviving the rollercoaster that has been her life to prosper. These days she's married and has two grown sons from her earlier, wilder days.
I was lucky enough to see Etta about 15 years ago, at a free concert at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, as part of the annual blues festival. By this time obese, Etta nevertheless belted out tunes in her incredibly powerful and soulful voice, interspersing her songs with raunchy commentary of the "I know you want it baby" variety. If you ever get a chance to see her, jump at it; she's an original, a survivor, and a fantastic vocalist.
Etta James passed away on January 20, 2012 in Riverside, California.
Most of this information is adapted from the liner notes to a 2-CD set of Etta's Chess years, "The Essential Etta James", and from the liner notes to her recent CD "Time After Time", both written by David Ritz. All the quotations are from the former source. The two collaborated on her autobiography, Rage to Survive.