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An appreciation of singer Etta James

Published Feb 9, 2012 8:49 PM

Etta James died at the age of 73 on Jan. 20 after having suffered from leukemia and Alzheimer’s. Her death came three days after that of R&B singer Johnny Otis, who is credited with getting her started in the music business in 1950. At that time, James was 14 and singing with a group then named the Creolettes. James, who would have turned 74 on Jan. 25, died in Riverside, Calif.

Though the movie, “Cadillac Records,” like many Hollywood biographical films, was inaccurate and incorrect in its portrayals and relationships, it would be wrong not to at least give it credit for introducing new generations not only to Etta James, but also to Howling Wolf, Chuck Berry, Little Walter and Muddy Waters.

Some may have been drawn to the actors who portrayed the musicians, most notably Beyoncé Knowles and Mos Def, but, eventually, one could hope that the viewer and listener would return to the source.

To listen to Etta James sing “I’d Rather Go Blind,” “All I Could Do is Cry” or her signature song, “At Last,” and to listen to Beyoncé are two different experiences. Any other rendition of either song or any other performed by James, such as “Out of the Rain,” would seem flat. James seemed to live her songs or they her. She could soar or be smoky and sultry. “At Last,” and “Out of the Rain” complement one another through Etta James — one new, young and hopeful; the latter older, wiser and sweeter. The songs were 30 years apart.

Much has been made of Etta James’ heroin addiction; even the film dealt with it. While what drives one to use a mind-altering substance may be different from what keeps the same person returning to the substance; while those reasons may be many, and the person may give different answers if queried, for the film to portray a Black woman as fundamentally weakened by a desire to find and be accepted by her white father, is an example of a liberal form of racism. As far as Etta James was concerned, she was Black.

Every child has a right to know her or his parents, but the much more interesting aspects of Etta James’ life and her reasons for the things she did are missed entirely. She didn’t want anyone to project on to her but desired to be her own person, to be open about her sexuality and to go against the bourgeois norms of society.

Such feelings are tied to the social and political atmosphere of the time and the personal circumstances of her life, which would include her feelings regarding her mother’s relationships, including the lack of full knowledge pertaining to her father; but to understand fully any sketch of her life would have to put it in its proper context. The tendency towards the anti-norms is as much a part of the culture as what is normal.

As Henri Wallon in his theory of cognitive psychology says, “Our mental life is perpetually conditioned by the situations in which it is engaged, be they in accord with its own propensities or contrary to them.”

James’ inclinations reflected her turn against the norms of her day, against the racism and sexism inherent in the society. It drove her towards her relationships with gay men and her acceptance of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people. Her album, “Life From San Francisco,” was recorded in a gay bar in the early 1980s and during her low time — when she was facing poverty. She said it was the gay community that kept her from starving, because she was able to perform in gay and lesbian clubs across the country.

Another little known fact about Etta James is that she was in the Nation of Islam, won over by Malcolm X. Despite substance abuse and other things that would have run counter to the Nation of Islam’s beliefs, she remained a member for almost a decade.

James will be missed. Her songs will be around for generations as well as her autobiography, “Rage to Survive: the Etta James Story,” as a testament.

This writer will always remember first discovering her as the credits rolled to the movie based on a Walter Mosley collection of stories, “Always Out Numbered, Always Outgunned,” when her voice captured the sentiments of the characters in the movie — stern and low at times and others gliding, melancholy and then hopeful and very mature — and opened my eyes to one of the greatest singers ever. Etta James ¡Presente!