The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: “Soul Punk” Etta James
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's first album
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.
Etta's first album
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.