Op-ed: Why Etta James Was the Original Diva of the Blues
BY Advocate Contributors
January 20 2012 7:35 PM ET
With a platinum
blond bouffant, the heaviest of black eyeliner, and a reverberating contralto
voice, Etta James tore a hole through the unforgiving blues. Her artistry scrapped the gut-bucket of
pain and led the way for women who didn't mind getting rugged onstage.
Before Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner, there was the megapower of soul: Etta
Born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938, in the South-Central area of Los
Angeles, Etta was the first "bad girl" of R&B. She famously performed with Ace bandages on her arms to cover up track marks
from a severe heroin addiction, her rap sheet was as long as Lindsay Lohan's, and
she hung tough with drag queens as a teen. One of her many arrests was with a
handful of queens at an Indianapolis hotel for being unmarried and sharing a
room with a member of the opposite sex. In an era when women had to be prim and
proper, she bucked authority and was apologetically Etta.
Etta said in
her 2003 autobiography, Rage to Survive, "I'm serious about turning little churchgoing
Jamesetta into a tough bitch called Etta James." She was as tough as
the blues and had the warrior marks to prove it. However, after a long
battle with cancer, Etta James died today at the age of 73.
Also known as Miss Peaches, she had her first number 1 R&B hit at the age
of 14 in 1954 as the lead singer of a trio called the Peaches. But it was
her 1960 solo deal under Chess Records that would make James a household
name. Songs like "All I Could Do is Cry” and "A Sunday Kind of
Love" ruled the airwaves. And then the classic that would change her
life forever: 1961's "At Last" from the album At Last! Written by Mack Gordon and Harry
Warren and performed by Glenn Miller in 1941, the song gave Etta her
Even with all of her success, James was wildly exploited by her record label,
not receiving the money she earned. Soon after, Etta’s addictions got the
best of her. In 2006 she told Gay City News that Billie Holiday had personally warned her to
"not to get caught up staying up late and drinking and
partying." Etta didn't heed the warning. By the age of 21,
Etta developed a full-blown addiction to heroin.
Etta struggled with heroin, overdosing many times and nearly losing the battle
like her idol, Holiday. In 1974 she faced the possibility of nearly 10 years in
prison for heroin possession and forgery. Luckily, she was sentenced to
17 months of drug rehab. But Etta would relapse several times. She
didn’t officially kick the habit until the age of 50 in 1988.
In later years Etta’s career would get a revival mainly due to Christina
Aguilera famously covering “At Last” and consistently crediting James.
The “Beautiful” songstress told InStyle in 2006, "Etta is my all-time favorite
singer. I've said it for the last seven years — since I had my first debut
record out — in every interview. I mean, all of Etta's old songs, countless
songs I could name, I grew up listening to."
In 2009, Etta
was thrown into the biggest controversy of her career with another pop diva. At the first inaugural ball for President Obama on January 20,
Beyoncé Knowles sang “At Last” — a song she had recently recorded after playing
Etta James in the movie Cadillac Records. Eight days
later, Miss Peaches told a Seattle audience that she "can't stand Beyoncé"
and that the diva would “get her ass whipped” for singing “At Last” to the president. Etta’s son later said the outburst was
due to a "drug-induced dementia.” Regardless of the media firestorm, she was clearly joking and just being
Etta James. From the start of her career, Etta bucked charm school, never
aiming for perfection. She was a down-home woman who endured the horrors of sexism, racism, and heartbreak that a pop star like
Beyoncé will thankfully never experience. So if Etta said she wants to
whip someone's ass, so be it — she is a diva who earned it!
Through all of Etta's tragedies, she survived rock and roll, unlike the cursed
27 club (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, etc.). Her life was colored with the deepest of blues, but she was no casualty. Mama pulled herself up by her garter belt, dusted off her wig, and rightfully
became known as one of the greatest voices of all time. While many remember Etta
for “At Last,” her greatest song is arguably “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which she
wrote back in 1968: "I looked down in the glass / That I held to my lips /
And I saw the reflection of the tears rolling down my face / That's when I knew
loved you / I can't live without you / I'd rather be a blind girl."
If that isn’t the blues personified, then I don’t know what is.
crushes your heart and all you could do is cry, you better put on some Etta
James because mama will make it better. At last, the woman who survived
the blues has gone home.
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