Etta James was the red-hot R&B mama who bounced back from drug addiction to became a living legend. Her death from leukemia has silenced one of the toughest voices in American soul. NME's Cliff White talked to her the summer of 1978, when she had just been touring with admirers the Rolling Stones——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
"Thanksgiving Day in November will be my silver anniversary: 25 years since I cut my first record and I haven't become a superstar yet. It took Janis Joplin two years."
A statement of fact. No bitterness in the voice, just a shadow of sadness exposed along with the naked truth; a fleeting glimpse of dues paid and years lost.
Etta James is not given to bitterness. She gets angry sometimes, certainly. Pretty wild with it too, so she says. But generally she greets life's dirty tricks with wry humour and a stoicism that has sustained her through the sort of professional trials and personal tribulations that have crippled — or killed — many a weaker personality.
Upon request, and if she's of a mind to, she can unpack a whole head load of memories of innocence and ignorance and exploitation and drug addiction, but once those private mental albums have been well thumbed by the insensitive interviewer, back they go in the file marked "education" and up bobs Etta's survival factor.
Like remembering the men who manipulated a lot of her life as "some of the greatest teachers that a person could have. If you went through them, boy, you knew how it was supposed to go. That's not saying that you won't get screwed again but at least you won't get screwed that way.
"Everybody's got their little come-on. The day that I signed with Chess Records, part of their come-on to me was a cheque laying on the desk that was made out to Chuck Berry and Alan Freed for $167,700. And I looked and Leonard Chess said, 'See, this is the kind of money our artists make.' I said gosh!
"The next cheque I saw was made out to the Moonglows, Harvey Fuqua and Alan Freed; it was about $70,000 royalties for the record 'Sincerely'. Alan Freed's name just happened to be on all of those cheques, y'know. Alan Freed and Leonard Chess, boy, they were the very best teachers.
"After that, after I had the hit with 'All I Could Do Was Cry', when Leonard handed me my very first envelope that said 'royalties,' I opened it up and there was no cheque in there, just a little piece of paper saying, 'You're $14,000 in the red.' 'But,' he told me, 'don't worry about that. You need some money? We'll let you have two thousand.' That was always the way it was. You'd get a Cadillac or a fur stole or a ring, something like that. That was your royalties.
"But bitter? No. After all, what did I know? I didn't have any lawyer or a good manager or nothing, so what the heck? Long as I was riding in a big Cadillac and dressed nice and had plenty of food, that's all I cared about."
Etta James is a remarkable lady. Born in 1938 and raised on the west coast of America, in 1954, while still a delinquent bobby-soxer, she was hustled into a private audition for Johnny Otis by an older, groupie friend; taken straight into a studio to record the girls' whimsical composition 'Roll With Me Henry' (which they made up in answer to the Hank Ballard & the Midnighters hit 'Work With Me Annie') and, having lied about her age, boarded the Otis touring revue on the princely wage of $10 per night.
The record shot up the R&B charts, was promptly banned from All-American airwaves for being too sexually upfront, and was coyly adapted as 'Dance With Me Henry' by Georgia Gibbs, who reputedly sold four million copies.
For four or five more years she continued to record for Modern Records of Los Angeles, cutting some of the best female rock and R&B of the era ('Good Rockin' Daddy', 'Tough Lover') without ever seeing a royalty cheque, until she got stranded in Chicago in 1959, where she was introduced to Chess Records by Harvey Fuqua — then leader of the Moonglows, subsequently a producer with Anna, Motown and Fantasy.
For 17 years Etta enjoyed/suffered — delete where applicable — an erratic career with the ever-ailing Chess Corp., recording a small string of hits (including 'At Last' and 'Fool That I Am') which were arranged to appeal to the early-'60s supper-club audience; a more typical selection of hardcore rhythm'n'blues tunes ('I Just Want To Make Love To You', 'Something's Got A Hold On Me') and, best remembered of all, many superb soul sides, from her first Chess hit ('All I Could Do Was Cry') through late-'60s classics ('I'd Rather Go Blind', 'Tell Mama', 'Security', 'Miss Pitiful') to '70s stunners like 'Leave Your Hat On', 'All The Way Down' and 'Come A Little Closer'.
Although consistently lauded by folk within the biz as one of the great black female singers, Etta is only just now emerging into the extreme sidelights of the great white wunnerful rock arena via a contract with Warner Brothers and her appearances on the current Rolling Stones tour of America.
"The Stones are great," she says, slightly wistfully. "They are doing black music and they've got it. They got the direction and they know what the hell to do. They know how to pump plenty of sound, they know how to get real intense and get people so crazy that they don't know what the heck's happening to them. And that's the way you gotta do it.
"I find myself going crazy about the Stones just like the kids are in the audience. Keith, he just stumbles over his own feet, blam, he falls down, he just lays there, blungablunga, he's still there just like it's part of the act. They kick each other and thump each other in the back of the head. Mick, if he forgets the damn words he just burbles and they go nuts. He forgets what part of the song he's singing but who cares, y'know? Long as he's there to holler something people just bump their heads on the wall, it's great.
"But, you know, Mick told me: 'I met you 15 years ago at a little club in Los Angeles. You were wearing a blonde wig and you had on a green dress and it had feathers...' he named everything. He was right. And a lot of the stuff that I see him do on stage is stuff that I used to do. I mean when I was really jumping around an' leaping an' looking all crazy.
"I was originally like a punker, know what I mean, like the punks are today, I'd spit in a minute. And I notice Mick does that same facial expression that I see, so then I sit in the dressing room and I think it's really weird how these guys have gotten over.
"The first night I worked with them I almost cried in my dressing room. I thought, God, here are these guys, they're famous millionaires from doing this here and I'm still nowhere after all these years. What is happening here?
"Then I think, I don't know, I wanna make money but I don't probably never wanna be cool about it, you know what I mean? I would never be cool about it. I would never give a shit whether I worked Las Vegas or Lake Tahoe or not. I'm not a bourgeois person, never will be. I could work Dingwalls forever because I'm used to that kind of joint.
"Like the guys came to me last night and said, 'I'm sorry this is not like the Ritz.' Well what the heck would I know? In 25 years I've never worked the Ritz; I've worked nothing but places that look like Dingwalls. And for those kind of people, that stand there and scream all night, and when you get through they're mad because you don't come back, that's my kind of people.
"See, I don't like places where people can't dance — don't like clubs or theatres where a bunch of bourgeois people sit around tip, tip, tipping their fingers."
Through an uncustomary tactical error on the part of producer Jerry Wexler, Etta's first Warners album, Deep In The Night, seems to be primarily aimed at the very audience she could live without. Fortunately Etta has the voice and personality to score a points win in her 10-round contest with the inappropriate arrangements and production, so that even with its faults the album is still one of the better releases by an American black female singer so far this year. Nevertheless, it could have been a good deal better, could it not?
"I think we could have made it stronger," Etta concedes. "It's a nice album, I'm not disappointed with it, but I think we went too far too soon. It was Jerry's idea to help me get over to a wider audience and to that extent it partly succeeded, but it's not really me, know what I mean?
"I think for the next album we'll go back to being a little more soulful. Y' know, the kind of bag that I think I've kinda made up my mind to shoot for, the slot that I think I should have taken, is the female Otis Redding slot.
"That's the direction I wanna go in now' cause there's no other chick got the balls to do it. Tina Turner came very close — if she had of just kept right on that right track, she had it. That's the thing I'm talking about, that intense thing. But now she's shooting for another bag. And the closest chick that could do it now is Millie Jackson, but I don't think she would. She's a little bit over here on another kick; she's busy rapping and stuff.
"I'm talking about singing and laying it down for 'em, y'know, making people go crazy an 'burnin' their ears up. That's the deal. That's really the direction I wanna go in."
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