"I sing what I feel — R&B, blues, gospel, and rock and roll, the music that came out of the South," Etta James proudly declares. "That's the music that I have always believed in."
No wonder every number Etta has chosen to perform during her 49-year career has seemed like an act of faith. Whether she's growled with womanly desire on her earliest hit "The Wallflower" (aka "Roll With Me Henry") (a feminist anthem well before the term feminism was common), soared like a swooning angel over the billowing clouds of strings in her timeless ballad "At Last," cried the blues with shattering eloquence in "I'd Rather Go Blind" or taken possession of the songs of Billie Holiday for her GRAMMY-winning 1994 album Mystery Lady — Songs Of Billie Holiday, Etta has won our hearts by putting her own into every captivating syllable.
The pure beauty of this is that's just Etta being Etta. Her biographer David Ritz described their first meeting this way: "I already knew her singing voice — an instrument of overwhelming power — but was startled to hear that her speaking voice, her storytelling voice, was even stronger. She spoke as she sang, in great gusts of emotion. Her candor was shocking. Her opinions were extreme; she loved and hated with undiluted passion. She could speak soft as a kitten or rough as a grizzly. She was not egotistical but rather level-headed about her career, displaying an unpretentious sense of her role as a gritty pioneer in American popular music."
Born Jamesetta Hawkins on Jan. 25, 1938, Etta learned to sing in church and forgot much else that she'd been taught there when she began recording and touring at the tender age of 15. Etta was a young black woman in a business that, at the time, was especially hard on both blacks and women. Yet through the road shows of the '50s and '60s, through the evolutionary years of soul music and rock and roll, through her reign as the queen of the famed Chess Records label, through lean times and golden years, Etta James endured and triumphed without compromising her honesty or the pure joy she feels making music.
There are few things she loved more than the hours she spent onstage.
"That's the only time that I feel truly, truly at my best," Etta told me in 2002. "I have no worries. I go somewhere else, into my own little world. When I look at people, I know that they love me. And I am me then. I am that little girl, 5 years old, who used to sing in church. Or I'm that 15-year-old lady who, smokin' a cigarette, wanted to be grown and couldn't wait to sing. Then I'm not really Etta James. I'm Jamesetta, doing what I really, really love to do."
(Ted Drozdowksi is a freelance journalist and musician.)