A Political Obituary of Etta James

James's personal and artistic journey has a lot to teach us about the shifting politics of race, class and feminist politics over the course of the last half century. Kenyon Farrow explores the late icon's history.

By Kenyon Farrow Jan 24, 2012

It’s a damn shame that many people were introduced to Etta James in the years before her death last week through Beyonce’s portrayal of her in the 2008 biopic “Cadillac Records.”

No one understood the awkwardness of that casting choice better than James herself, who told The New York Post’s Page Six in 2007, when she learned the film was already in production, that “she is going to have a hill to climb, because Etta James ain’t been no angel!… I wasn’t as bourgie as she is, she’s bourgeois. She knows how to be a lady, she’s like a model. I wasn’t like that … I smoked in the bathroom in school, I was kinda arrogant.”

The woman born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938, was far more than just a torch song singer, and was not at all the tragic mulatto with a white daddy complex that “Cadillac Records” constructed. In many ways, James’s personal and artistic journey, as opposed to the film’s caricature, has a lot to teach us about the shifting politics of race, class and feminist politics over the course of the last half century.

Etta James was born in Los Angeles, when many African Americans were moving due West to escape the brutality of the Jim Crow South and chase the promise of manufacturing jobs. She was raised by a handful of caregivers, as her mother was often running the streets chasing a good time. Her mother was a woman James sometimes despised and at the same time desperately wanted to please. Her father’s identity was not really known to her, though it has been rumored her father was white. In fact, James learned late in life during an argument with her mother that he was likely legendary pool shark Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone, whom James met in 1987.

At age five, James developed two relationships that would remain with her throughout her life: one relationship with singing and one with black gay men, and the LGBT community as a whole. In her 2003 autobiography Rage To Survive, James describes her first vocal coach, James Earl Hines—musical director at L.A.’s St. Paul Baptist Church and one of the the early gospel superstars—as “married, acted gay as a goose, and I was crazy about him…. Truth is, all the gay guys in the choir sang like angels, and acted so different…. I loved their little underground talk, their gossiping about the sisters.”

Though James’ formative years were spent singing in the church, she turned to the streets, and street life, for inspiration. She moved to San Francisco’s Fillmore district as an early teen, where she sang in the doo-wop group the Creolettes (which later become The Peaches) and recorded on Modern Records, before leaving in 1960 to sign with the legendary Chess Records (which the film “Cadillac Records” attempts to profile). Her debut album “At Last!” was released the same year, when she was 22 years old.

Unlike most artists who work for many years before writing or recording their “definitive” work, James is most remembered for songs from this debut album, including “At Last” (though it was not a crossover single) and “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and “A Sunday Kind of Love.”

At Last has become arguably the most popular song in the U.S. for weddings, Valentine’s Day, or other kinds of bourgeois events calling for cheap sentimentality—despite the fact that James’s powerhouse vocals and phrasing actively work against the sentimentality of the song’s arrangement, as it does in most of her work covering jazz standards during that period.

But her vocals weren’t the only place James was working decidedly against a safe “jazz singer” image. She worked in her personal life and her styling to embody the kind of black urban street culture in which she was immersing herself:

“I [was] serious about turning little churchgoing Jamesetta into a tough bitch called Etta James…. I wanted to look like a great big high-yellow ho’. I wanted to be nasty.”

James ascribes the blonde-yellow hair and black eyebrows that she adopted early in her career to being closely associated with street-based sex workers and drag queens at the time. That’s who she was emulating.

She also says the beginning of her addiction to heroin was not a way to cope with the abandonment issues or physical abuse she suffered as a child. She starting shooting drugs because she thought that’s what bad girls do, and because she saw Billie Holiday, her idol, as the ultimate bad girl. She lost many friends to issues related to substance addiction (Billie Holiday, Destiny—a black drag queen and best friend to James, even Janis Joplin, who emulated James and for whom’s overdose James felt personally responsible). She was able to kick heroin in the 1970s, but she struggled with addiction much of her adult life, and she was pretty open about that fact.

While James was touring the country, getting high and running the streets with gangsters, street walkers, gays, and drag queens (and likely some folks we’d now call transgender), she also became friends with Muhammad Ali (they met when he was still Cassius Clay) and Malcolm X, both of whom she says she spent a lot of time with. At one point she joined the Nation of Islam, and gained her “X.” But James in many ways was exactly the kind of convert the Nation of Islam sought—black people from urban areas involved in various forms of street culture. “My religious practices might have been erratic, and my wildness surely overwhelmed my piety, but for ten years I called myself a Muslim,” said James.

As the 1960s moved on, James’ music also began to shift from doo-wop and jazz to more R&B, blues, rock, and even country over the course of the 1960s and 70s. Though James began doing the kind of gospel-influenced R&B (which later got described as “soul” music), in the early 1960s, it was Aretha Franklin who got credit for ushering in the soul era, along with James Brown (whom James toured with, and sometimes sang for in the 1960s). James really capitalized on the blues resurgence of the 1970s to make a living touring the world. She got frustrated by the fact that people constructed a blues identity for her work and deeply resented the “Earth Mama” trap she felt that put her in. (It’s a trap many other black women artists find difficult to escape as well.) In the end, though, she went with it, as she saw it as the easiest way to make money to support herself and her two young sons.

By the end of the 1970s when Chess Records folded, James was on hard times, still struggling with an addiction, and trying to make a living in the disco era, without a record label and doing her own bookings. James said that without the gay community, she would have starved in the late 1970s early 1980s, when she performed in a lot of gay bars across the country. Her 1994 release “Life From San Francisco” was actually recorded in March 1981 in a gay bar. In her memoir, Etta recounts a harrowing premonition at the time about the onset of the AIDS epidemic.

James eventually began to record again. With her two adult sons serving as bandmates and co-producers, she recorded and toured from the 1990s up through 2011, mostly recording in the jazz and blues genres.

Is it any wonder that a woman who struggled to define her self, her sound and her career over the span of 50 years would be a little suspicious of a Hollywood portrayal of her, in a film on which she was not consulted?

James was not happy about her portrayal in “Cadillac Records,” for which Beyonce served not only as actress but also as producer. Contrary to the portrayal of James in the film, she was not romantically involved with Chess Records founder Leonard Chess. Nor did she use drugs because she was distraught over not knowing the identity of her biological father—James knew this was a possibility, but clearly saw herself as black and never tried to identify as mixed or biracial. The film tries to suggest James was sexually attracted to Chess because he represented the white daddy she never had. Marshall Chess, the surviving son of Leonard Chess, said of the Chess/James relationship, “Now, my father was no angel, but (he) was never caught in an affair. It never happened.” Marshall reported that he asked James about it, and she said, “He kissed me on the cheek once.”

To add insult to injury, after the film, Beyonce performed Etta’s signature song, “At Last” at the President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, laying claim to the tune James was still singing professionally and which she relied on to make a living. James told an audience shortly after that that Obama “is not my president” and “that woman he had singing for him, singing my song … she’s going to get her ass whipped.”

James (or likely her publicist) later released a statement saying James was “kidding” about the comment. But the conflict between James and Beyonce is not as simple as divas behaving badly. It really represents an artist angered by the attempts made without her consent to control the public’s understanding of her life and legacy. Audiences will hopefully be willing to go beyond “At Last,” and beyond “Cadillac Records” to find a woman whose talent and legacy went beyond both.

Kenyon Farrow is a regular contributor to Colorlines.com.