A Tough B*tch Called Etta James

“Don’t back off those notes, Jamesetta,” Professor Hines instructed the five-year-old star of his Echoes of Eden choir, “Attack ’em. Grab ’em. Claim those suckers,” he urged her, “Sing ’em like you own ’em.”

Awestruck by her mentor’s fiery vocal delivery, Jamesetta studied Professor Hines intently, mimicking his every groan, grunt and holler and was soon nabbing every solo in the choir. Before long, the pews at St. Paul Baptist Church were spilling over with listeners eager for a glimpse of the “girlchild who could sing like a full-grown woman.”

Fifty years later, the sound of Hines’ “go-tell-it-on-the-mountain” singing still burned in the mind of Jamesetta Hawkins, better known as Etta James.

“Man, that’s how I wanted to sing”, she gushed in her 1993 autobiography Rage to Survive, “all that glass-shattering force, all that spill-your-guts-out power.”

But invaluable vocal training wasn’t all the church provided five-year-old James. The thunderous reception she received at St. Paul, the singer says, was her only substitute for the warmth she so sorely lacked at home. Born to a 14-year-old prostitute whom James described as “a distant goddess, a starlet I couldn’t touch, couldn’t even call by the name of mother,” the singer’s earliest nights were spent sleeping in motel dresser drawers while her mother worked the highways and truckstops around L.A.

James’ relentless search for a family led her to join street gangs in her teens, her so-called “don’t-f*ck-with-me” streak eventually landing her in juvenile delinquency centers and reform schools. It was her teenage defiance, the singer says, that responded to the raunchy sounds of gutbucket Blues.

“I’d crank that sucker up and grind up against the walls,” James said of Guitar Slim’s The Things I Used To Do, “that was my music.

Though Professor Hines and St. Paul Baptist would remain her most seminal influence, by her late teens, the church was but a distant memory for Etta James.

“Devilish sounds were calling out; the rhythm was all over me,” the singer said, “a new spirit was coming on.”

That spirit can be heard loud and clear on James’ first recording, 1955’s Roll With Me, Henry, a cheeky 12-bar blues piece whose subtle sexual themes, thinly veiled by tongue-in-cheek euphemisms, spoke to the rebellion of the then-burgeoning Rock & Roll movement. Upon hearing the record, bandleader Johnny Otis quickly signed James to Modern Records where she recorded hits like The Wallflower, forever solidifying her as a veritable pioneer of Rock & Roll.

After a series of albums and tours, word of James’ immense vocal talent had spread to Chess Records in Chicago where Leonard Chess was on the hunt for female talent. Earthy, raw and aggressive as the woman herself, James’ was the perfect voice to breathe life into lush arrangements like All I Could Do Was Cry and Sunday Kind of Love, which she masterfully did on 1961’s At Last, her Chess debut. The collection of sultry R&B ballads catapulted James to the upper echelons of Soul music divadom, where she’d rank alongside her Baptist-bred contemporaries Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight.

James continued to gain fame in the ’60s for her mighty voice and bad-girl persona (she admittedly copped her trademark blond weave and dark cat-eye lashes from the hookers she saw on the streets of South Central as a child). It wasn’t long before she fell victim to the self-aggrandizement that so often accompanies early stardom, the rush of fame reigniting her teenage rebellious streak.

“I was serious about turning little church-going Jamesetta into a tough b*tch called Etta James,” the singer said. “That was my state of mind when I tried heroin for the first time.”

The decision sparked a four-decade dalliance with narcotics that would forever impact the singer’s career. Despite continuing to chart throughout the 60s with Etta James Rocks the House(1964) and Tell Mama(1968), the trappings of fame eluded James as singing became little more than a means to support a devastating $300-a-day heroin addiction.

“I didn’t live like a star,” James frankly admitted, “After the gigs, I was going to the after-hours joints to hang with the gangsters and pimps. Being a street junkie meant as much to me as being a singer.”

As her habit raged on in the ’70s, the singer’s commercial success continued to waver until a national tour in 1978 with the Rolling Stones reignited her career, exposing her to legions of newfound fans in the only genre she felt truly defined her: Blues. Through the ’80s, she continued headlining as a Blues singer and co-billing with the likes of the Grateful Dead, Dr. John and B.B. King before embracing jazz in the ’90s, a genre she had long admired and to which her newly diminished vocal range, ravaged by years of drug abuse, was perfectly suited. (Ironically, the first Grammy she ever earned was in the jazz category, for 1995’s Mystery Lady: The Songs of Billie Holiday).

As a testament to James’ versatility as a singer, by the time she died of leukemia in January of 2012, she had been inducted into the Rock & Roll, Rockabilly and Blues Halls of Fame, earned Grammys in both the Blues and Jazz categories, and released a total of thirty studio albums spanning R&B, Soul, Jazz, Funk, Rock, Gospel, Blues and Country. It appears that as the singer’s battles with drugs, men and weight deepened, so did her musical range, making her a strong case for the old adage that true creativity is born of struggle.

Etta James’ voice was a complex instrument of unspeakable force, a voice that, as her dear friend Keith Richards put it, “could take you to hell or to heaven.” When she died in 2012, writers and music buffs the world over lamented the loss of a singer whose like would never be seen again – one of the very Greatest Singers ever, according to Rolling Stone.

It was only too serendipitous that she’d be honored in 2003 with a Lifetime Achievement Award at The Grammy Museum, located a mere four miles down the Harbor Freeway from St. Paul Baptist where she cut her chops with the Echoes of Eden choir. Though by then James’ voice had grown more layered and complex, gaining more depth with each blow she was dealt, she never forgot her lessons with Professor Hines, who would urge her as a girl of five to “sing like your life depended on it.”

“Turns out,” she said, looking back fifty years later, “mine did.”