Women's Lives: Etta James

When Etta James died late last year, I was surprised by my sadness.  I’d never paid that much attention to her, and I was one of those people who sometimes confused her with Etta Jones (Don’t Go To Strangers, 1960).  Such a mistake!

The talented and tortured Etta James was a singular being who helped shape my lush teen years.  One of my strongest, most sensual memories is of huddling around the static-laced radio of a faded, blue 1947 Buick with my boyfriend, Jimmy, listening to Randy’s Record Shop on WLAC’s clear channel station out of Gallitan, Tennessee. 1510 on the AM dial, listening late in the night by fifties standards, the sound transformed the car we called “the blue goose” into a magical space.  With no air-conditioning to keep us cool, there were usually at least four of us bouncing on the sofa-like sedan seats seating squealing in mock horror when Etta belted out “Roll With Me Henry.” We knew exactly what she was singing about.My mother would have been horrified at my joyous singing along with Etta because, as Negro middle-class wannabes, she wanted me to be a nice girl, with nice friends and listen to nice music.  Nat King Cole or Perry Como, for instance. Etta was not a nice girl.

But Etta and I were girls at a moment in history when black America and white America were playing chicken on a musical highway.  We couldn’t know the collision would begin blending us into a new American culture.

Neither of us could begin to imagine me, in 2012, in New England cruising a high-end furniture consignment shop with $100 tea kettles for sale and hear Frankie Lymon singing “I Want You To Be My Girl!”  I suspect I’m the only person in the store who was amazed by this.  It seemed to be a normal thing for the other patrons, some of whom were gently bopping to the beat.

Etta James was one of the members of a large and supremely talented group of Negro, mid-twentieth century artists that included Sam Cook, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, B.B. and Albert King, James Brown and so many others, singing its way down that road.  And I was a young girl on the sidewalk – singing wildly off key and moving happily to the beat as they passed by.  The Penguins’ Earth Angel, written by Etta’s close friend Jesse Belvin, defined a portion of my emotional life when I was sixteen. Sincerely by the Moonglows, road warriors with Etta, and Goodnite, Sweatheart, Goodnite did the talking for me more than once in a romantic tight spot.  I was having a good time mooning about, working part-time jobs and going to high school, but Etta, my age-mate, was making her way in a tough world I didn’t know existed.

While my mother was spending her days supporting my sister and me as a secretary and her nights in the fall of 1957 making my debutante dress, Etta’s mother was informally turning tricks here and there in Los Angeles while Etta was passed around from one relative or friend to another.  It is Etta’s mother Dorothy who looms over the singer’s biography Rage to Survive.  Dorothy was a party girl whose main interest was – without apology – Dorothy.  She popped in and out of Etta’s life, through her bouts with both fame and infamy, always looking to see what she could get from the child to whom she gave little. But Etta loved her anyway.

Dorothy was as casual about the identity of Etta’s father as she was about Etta.  She identified several men at different times who could have been Etta’s father, including one man who was so physically different from either Dorothy or Etta that it cruelly trivialized the whole notion of caring who helped bring James into her harsh and often just plain nasty world. But one name kept coming up from Dorothy and from those who knew her and were part of the revolving West Los Angeles community that was an on-again, off-again home for Etta:  Rudolf Wanderone, Jr. – known both as New York Fats and Minnesota Fats.

I believe at least some of Etta James’ deep sadness and destructive life can be traced back to her narcissistic mother, her uncertain paternity and the fact that she was often mistaken for white in a world hostile to people who looked like her.  Like a heavy, wet tarp, this history lay over her stunning voice and exquisite phrasing and delivery. We know her talent more in spite of her than because she was ever really in charge of it.  Etta James sang more for food and drugs than for money and fame.

She made her first recording when she was 15 and, until her death late last year, she spent the rest of her life as a wandering, usually drugged, and sometimes criminal troubadour.  There were some men and two children along the way, but her mark was made for her part in our national musical legacy. Her work spanned the half-century of musical history, touched on one side by bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf and Lightning Hopkins and on the other by Mick, Eric Clapton and Bobby Dylan.  It is the life she led between those musical poles that nearly killed her, but also gave her wonderful biographical material.

For anyone who was influenced by the music of the second half of the 20th century or who remembers her early work or loves “At Last,” whether Etta sings it or Beyonce imitates her singing it, her biography offers much.  I believe her assertion that Sam Cooke was murdered by the mob; that James Brown was a mean, little dictator; that Marvin Gaye really did need some Sexual Healing; and, that Sly Stone and Doris Day had a thing. Really.

But the good gossip can’t make up for the sadness at this talented woman’s mostly joyless life.  Her search for her father had as satisfying a conclusion as real life usually offers: She met with Minnesota Fats in Nashville and, apparently, each could see a resemblance and they ended this one meeting they would ever have with an unspoken understanding that they were family.  Perhaps that is the closure that allowed her to live the last decade or so of her life in what appears to have been near-peace.

I saw her perform At Last on Dancing With the Stars from a 2009 show.  She was beautiful.  She looked so small without the layers of fat that had covered her up for so much of her life.  Her voice was strong and she was coiffed and made up to perfection but, as she sang “my lonely days are over,” her eyes still looked sad and distant. Look and listen.

Maybe it isn’t possible to have enough talent to make us indifferent to who we are.  Or to make up for what we don’t know about our past. The search for answers and for the people themselves – especially for a missing parent – is always, in the end, a search for self.





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