I first heard the sad news here from Rhetta Akamatsu: legendary pop/rhythm and blues singer Etta James passed away earlier today after suffering from leukemia.
Some day I really, really need to read T'Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do: Blues Women Past and Present by Rhetta Akamatsu. Etta James is the subject of Chapter 13. Nineteen other women are featured in the book, starting with Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and finishing with Koko Taylor.
My all-time favorite rock book is She's A Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll by Gillian G. Gaar. (I own the original 1992 edition and the expanded 2002 edition - the true book nerd must buy the expanded version of a book she already owns.) Gaar places James in the "Roots" chapter. Gaar writes:
"Etta James was another performer with roots in the R&B scene who eventually found success on the pop charts. Born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938 in Los Angeles, James sang in the church choir as a child. She later moved to San Francisco with her mother and in her teens formed a vocal trio with her sisters Abbye and Jean Mitchell. The trio auditioned for Johnny Otis...and Otis brought them to L.A., where he had the girls record a song they had written, 'Roll With Me Henry.'"
The song was released in 1955, and in 1960 she moved to Chess Records, where she recorded her first Top 40 hit, "All I Could Do Was Cry." Considered racy by '50s standards, "Roll With Me Henry" was re-recorded as "Dance With Me Henry" by another performer, Georgia Gibbs.
Going on tour was James' first encounter with the brutally-enforced segregation of the American South, Gaar writes. She was once threatened with a shotgun for refusing to use a bug-infested "Colored" bathroom. She only escaped by apologizing to the man who pulled the gun on her.
Not that it was in James' nature to submit. She told Rolling Stone in 1997, "I've had people say to me, 'Can't you be more feminine? I would go, 'Feminine? Why do I have to be feminine?' Does that mean I have to put a little apron on and bake some cookies or something?" James also said she was a feminist before she knew what the word meant.
Gutsy, rebellious, unabashedly sexual, unique and undoubtedly talented, Etta James will be missed by music-lovers and by those who look up to strong women.
Some of you will watch Cadillac Records in her honor. You may recall that James was miffed that Beyonce, who portrayed her in the film, performed her signature song "At Last" at the inaugural ball for President Barack Obama when James herself was available to do so. She seemed to have forgiven Lady B, though. (According to the Rolling Stone interview, James was a fan of Mary J. Blige's style, and not-so-much of Toni Braxton's breathy voice.) So I don't think James would be offended if you do.
Just remember what I said in "5 Dudes," though - Adrien Brody enacts ethnic stereotypes in his role as Leonard Chess. Don't think that I endorse said stereotypes.
I do, however, heartily endorse interracial snogging in films.
Images: Roland Godefroy (Creative Commons); public domain; Louis Ramirez (Creative Commons)