James' passion, great range remembered
Published: Saturday, January 21, 2012 at 12:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 21, 2012 at 12:20 p.m.
NEW YORK — On her last album "The Dreamer," released just three months before her death, Etta James sings a mix of covers, from the R&B classic "Misty Blue" to the Ray Charles song "In the Evening." But perhaps the most curious tune included on the disc may be the Guns N' Roses staple "Welcome to the Jungle."
That a 73-year-old icon of R&B would tackle the frenetic rock song — albeit in a pace more fitting her blues roots — might seem odd. But the song may be the best representation of James as both a singer and a person — rambunctious in spirit, with the ability to sing whatever was thrown at her, whether it was jazz, blues, pining R&B or a song from one of the rowdiest bands in rock.
"She was able to dig so deep in kind of such a raw and unguarded place when she sang, and that's the power of gospel and blues and rhythm and blues. She brought that to all those beautiful standards and rocks songs that she did. All the number of vast albums she recorded, she covered such a wide variety of material that brought such unique phrasing and emotional depth," said Bonnie Raitt, a close friend, in an interview on Friday afternoon after James' death.
"I think that's what appealed to people, aside from the fact that her personality on and off the stage was so huge and irrepressible. She was ribald and raunchy and dignified, classy and strong and vulnerable all at the same time, which is what us as women really relate to."
James, whose signature song was the sweeping, jazz-tinged torch song "At Last," died in Los Angeles from complications of leukemia. Her death came after she struggled with dementia and other health problems, health issues that kept her from performing for the last two or so years of her life.
It was a life full of struggles. Her mother was immersed in a criminal life and left her to be raised by friends, she never knew her true father (though she believed it was billiards great Minnesota Fats), and she had her own troubles, which included a decades-long addiction to drugs, turbulent relationships, brushes with the law, and other tribulations.
One might think all of those problems would have weighted down James' spirit, and her voice, layering it with sadness, or despair. While she certainly could channel depression, anger, and sorrow in song, her voice was defined by its fiery passion: Far from beaten down, James embodied the fight of a woman who managed to claw her way back from the brink, again and again.
It's an attitude that influenced her look as well. Despite the conservative era, she dyed her hair platinum blonde, sending out the signal that she was far from demure, and owning a brassy, sassy attitude. She relished her role as saucy singer, a persona that she celebrated in her private life as well.
"In terms of 1950s rhythm and blues stars, she had kind of a gutsy attitude and she went out there and did what she did, and she was kind of bold ... and it had a huge influence," she said. "I think her gutsiness and her lack of fear and just her courage (made her special). ... I believe that made her important and memorable."
Beyonce, who played James in the movie "Cadillac Records" about Chess Records, also spoke about her influence on other singers.
"I feel like Etta James, first of all, was the first black woman I saw with platinum, blonde hair. She wore her leopard and she wore her sexy silhouette and she didn't care. She was strong and confident and always Etta James," said Beyonce in a 2008 interview.
James could often be irascible. Ritz remembers when he was working with her on the autobiography, touring with her around the country, one time he approached her with his tape recorder and she barked: "If see that tape recorder again I'm going to cram it up your (expletive)."
But at other times, she'd be effusive and warm and anxious to talk.
"Once she did talk, she was always candid and unguarded. She was a free spirit," Ritz said.
While Ritz put her in the category of other greats like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye, she never enjoyed their mainstream success. Though "At Last" has become an enduring classic, there were times when James had to scrounge for work, and while she won Grammys and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she did not have the riches, the multitude of platinum records or the hits that some of her peers enjoyed.
"She at least enjoyed a great resurgence like John Lee Hooker did and B.B. King, (and) has had some great decades of appreciation from new generations around the world," said Raitt. "There's no one like her. No one will ever replace Etta."
And Ritz said the lack of commercial success does nothing to diminish her greatness, or her legacy.
"Marvin certain knew it and Ray knew it ... the people who know that she was in that category," he said. "Whatever the marketplace did or didn't do or whether her lack of career management didn't do, it has nothing to do with her talent."
And on Friday, the Queen of Soul was among those who paid tribute to James greatness, calling her "one of the great soul singers of our generation. An American original!
"I loved 'Pushover,' 'At Last' and almost any and everything she recorded! When Etta SUNG, you heard it!"