ETTA JAMES 1938-2012
I'm Gonna Take What He's Got
Jamesetta Hawkins was born in South Central Los Angeles in 1938. Her mother, Dorothy, was 14 years old. Her father, she maintains, was celebrated pool hustler Minnesota Fats. Raised by family friends, her vocal abilities were soon noticed at their church, St. Paul Baptist.
The Echoes of Eden Choir at St. Paul's was the "biggest, baddest and hippest" in L.A., and the Church was a favorite with gospel greats such as Sallie Martin and Rosetta Tharpe, as well as with 'slumming' Hollywood types who filled the back pews. The choir director, Professor James Earl Hines, knew talent when he saw it and took the young Jamesetta under his wing. He coached his young vocal student in what he called "dynamic singing", urging her to "never back off those notes... claim those suckers, sing 'em like you own 'em!" (advice she would clearly take to heart!). The choir was broadcast every Sunday on KOWL, and it wasn't long before the little girl soloist up front became famous in her own right.
She went to school with people like Jesse Belvin and Richard Berry, and became a part of the crowd that hung out on Central Avenue. When her adoptive mother, Mama Lu, died in 1950, Dorothy Hawkins took her daughter to live in the projects of San Francisco. She made friends with a girl named Jean Mitchell, and began harmonizing with her and her sister, Abye at the rec center near their apartment. She eventually moved in with them, and they began calling themselves "The Creolettes".
In the summer of 1954, Hank Ballard and The Midnighters had a huge hit with Work With Me Annie, a suggestive rocker that would hold the number one slot on the R&B charts for 7 weeks. Jamesetta re-wrote the lyrics and came up with an 'answer song' she called "Roll With Me Henry". The Creolettes performed the tune all over town, and people ate it up. Abye, who was older than the other girls, got herself introduced to west coast R&B legend Johnny Otis, and talked him into letting her group audition for him. He was duly impressed, and offered to make them a part of his act. Jamesetta forged her mother's signature on a permission form, and headed back to L.A..
Otis renamed the group "The Peaches", and was also the one responsible for switching the syllables around and coming up with 'Etta James'. He landed the group a deal with the Bihari brothers' Modern Records, and they released Roll With Me Henry in the fall of 1954. Radio stations were refusing to play it because of the suggestive title, and King Records, who had released The Midnighter's original hit was threatening to sue Modern. They pulled the record, paid Sid Nathan off, and changed the name of the song to The Wallflower, agreeing to credit Ballard as a co-writer down the line. The song, with old pal Richard Berry playing the part of Henry, went straight to number one, spending 19 weeks on the R&B charts. A follow-up single, Good Rockin' Daddy (with Jessie Belvin on background vocals), would also crack the top ten. Etta James was in the house!
She began traveling the country in package tours like the Top Ten Revue, working with everyone from Little Willie John to Bill Doggett, Bo Diddley, Little Richard and even Clifton Chenier. She forged lifelong friendships with folks like kindred souls Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Larry Williams, and truly 'went to school' on the R&B road ("Man, I saw some stuff", she says).
The Biharis sent Etta down to Cosimo's studio in New Orleans in 1956 and again in 1957 to try and capture some rock & roll magic. Although songs like Tough Lover and The Pick-Up featured Matassa's 'A' team of crack studio musicians like Lee Allen and Earl Palmer, they failed to make the charts.
It was around this time that Etta fell in love with the suave and sophisticated Harvey Fuqua who, along with his group The Moonglows, seemed to own the top ten at the time. They told her that if she wanted to make some real money, she should get herself signed by their record company, Chess. Broke and hungry, she and her old friend (and original 'Peach') Abye made their way to Chicago.
It took three thousand dollars to buy out her contract from Modern (her last Bihari single was actually released on their new label, Kent), and Leonard Chess, who was always on the look-out for female talent, advanced her another five grand. He assigned ace arranger Riley Hampton to work with her on a song written by Billy Davis and Berry Gordy called All I Could Do Was Cry. It was a huge hit, climbing to number 2 R&B, and paving the way for the lush orchestration of most of her early Argo sides.
She and Harvey would appear together on a couple of Chess releases (as Etta and Harvey), and were also living together at The Sutherland Hotel, working on some old songs. Leonard was so impressed by what he heard that he had Hampton work up arrangements for an entire album of standards. At Last was a huge success, and both the title track and Trust In Me would crack the top five in early 1961.
Etta continued to chart regularly, with great songs like Something's Got A Hold On Me and Stop The Wedding showing off her gospel shout. She also managed to become a full-fledged junkie by this time, and problems in her personal life began piling up. Leonard Chess was always there to catch her when she fell, it seemed, and although she found it hard to trust him completely, they basically needed each other.
Leonard was jealous of the success the "New York Jews" were having recording down South, and once Jerry Wexler had his famous falling out with Rick Hall down in Muscle Shoals, Chess was happy to step in. He signed an agreement with Fame Studios that guaranteed them more money, and began by sending new label signees Irma Thomas and Laura Lee to record there. Lee's Dirty Man broke into the top 20, and set the stage for what was to come.
In August of 1967, Etta James arrived in Florence, Alabama with her entourage, trunks of furs and fancy clothes, two french poodles, and Leonard Chess in tow. By her own admission, she was "pregnant and cranky and ready to blow the doors off the studio".
That's just what she did.
Over the course of a 3 day period, "Rick Hall & Staff" (which included Gene "Bowlegs" Miller on trumpet, Spooner Oldham on keyboards and Jimmy Johnson on guitar) produced some of the most powerful soul music to ever rise out of Muscle Shoals. When Tell Mama was released in November, it just ate up the charts, breaking into the top 10 R&B and top 40 pop. The B side of that single was a song Etta had written with old friend Ellington "Fuggie" Jordan while he was in prison. When Leonard Chess first heard her sing I'd Rather Go Blind, he had to leave the room, so nobody would see him cry. It really is that good, man.
They returned to Fame Studios in December to finish recording tracks for the Tell Mama album, which was released in January 1968. Our current B side was the flip of Etta's cover of Otis Redding's Security, and was released as the second single from the record in March, rising as high as #11 R&B. Written by the great Don Covay (who, of course, would soon contribute his Chain Of Fools to Aretha's southern soul legacy), it's the real thing, baby! Recorded at the original August sessions (the same day as I'd Rather Go Blind), it just cooks! Check out the Fender Rhodes, the guitar, Etta just beltin' it out! I'll take it. The original album has been re-packaged with 12 more tracks she recorded in Muscle Shoals on her first two visits, as well as on her last session in 1968. Buy it.
When Leonard Chess died in January of 1969, Etta lost her friend and biggest fan. Within a few weeks. a faceless executive visited Etta with the deed to her house, which Leonard had held for her for years so she wouldn't lose it... she was amazed. Although she stayed with Chess (which was now owned by something called GRT corporation) until it all fell apart in the mid-70s, things were never the same.
Jerry Wexler (who has called James "the greatest of all modern blues singers... the undisputed Earth Mother") produced an album on Etta for Warner Brothers in 1978 called Deep In The Night, with both of them agreeing to steer clear of the "disco bullshit". Although it's a great record, it didn't sell much, and she moved on.
In 1980, she would team up with Allen Toussaint in New Orleans to produce an album for MCA called Changes that featured great Sea-Saint session men like Leo Nocentelli, Sam Henry and Herman Ernest. Once again, it was a great record that didn't sell much, and remains out of print to this day!
Etta continued to perform throughout the eighties, although her recorded output didn't amount to much. MCA, which now owned the Chess masters, started re-issuing her material. Ace Records in the UK, which had the rights to the Modern and Kent catalogues began doing the same with her earlier output. My girlfriend (now my darling wife) became a HUGE fan, and we went to see the great "Miss Peaches" whenever we could. At a show at the Beacon Theater in NYC in 1989, she somehow worked her way backstage, and when she saw Etta she just broke down and cried. The great lady hugged her and said, "I know, honey, I know..." .
She signed with Island Records around this time and her albums were perrenial Grammy nominees. When she returned to Muscle Shoals with Jerry Wexler to record The Right Time, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally took notice and she was inducted in 1993. She signed with Private Music in 1994, and finally won her a (long overdue) Grammy for her first album for them, Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday. She continued to turn out quality records for them for the next ten years.
In 2003, Etta was awarded her own star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, as well as receiving a Liftetime Acheivement award at the Grammys. She was awarded another Grammy the following year for her Blues To The Bone album. She had become serious about losing weight at this point, and underwent gastric bypass surgery.
This past March 14th, Etta released a critically acclaimed album on RCA Victor called All The Way that has her covering everyone from Sinatra to Prince. She has lost over 200 pounds, and embarked on an ambitious tour in support of the record on April 8th. Reviews of her first shows have been excellent, and she's scheduled to perform everywhere from Jazz Fest in New Orleans to Carnegie Hall in Manhattan...
That's what I wrote over five years ago.
May She Rest In Peace.