The film Cadillac Records, loosely based on the story of the Chess record label and starring Beyoncé, introduced a new generation to the music of Etta James. So too did Beyoncé’s performance of At Last, a song made famous by James, at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
James was critical of both of these, saying of Beyoncé’s film portrayal of her, “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…I wasn’t like that…I smoked in the bathroom in school.” She said 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.”
Jamesetta Hawkins was born in Los Angeles in 1938 and spent her early years singing in the church, before moving to San Francisco where she formed a group, The Creolettes, with two friends. They were spotted by Johnny Otis, who died a few days before James, and signed to Modern records.
There she became known as Etta James and recorded her first hit. It was originally called Roll With Me, Henry but was changed to Dance With Me, Henry.
Finally, as was often the case in 1950s America, it was covered by a white artist, in the process becoming a much bigger hit. This time it was renamed The Wallflower so that it was less sexually suggestive.
James signed to the Chess label in 1960, where she was to stay until 1978. Aged just 22 she released her debut album, At Last! As well as the famous title track, the album also included A Sunday Kind Of Love and I Just Want To Make Love To You (her only UK hit) and featured a range of different musical styles. For the next 20 years James’s life was affected by drug addiction, first with heroin and then cocaine, and towards the end of her life with painkillers, which she attributed to her desire to be a “bad girl”.
During the 1960s she became friends with both Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali and joined the Nation of Islam, saying of this period, “My religious practices might have been erratic, and my wildness surely overwhelmed my piety, but for ten years I called myself a Muslim.”
In 1967 she went to the legendary Fame recording studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where artists such as Aretha Franklin recorded some of their best work. Here, James recorded the album Tell Mama and the title track was released as a single. One of the songs that Etta James is now best known for, I’d Rather Go Blind, was on the B-side. James never really achieved this level of popularity again, spending ten years without a recording contract in the 1980s, although she performed live throughout that time, even opening for the Rolling Stones.
Etta James spent years in and out of rehab – she even recorded the album Come A Little Closer while in rehab in a psychiatric hospital – and was in prison on a number of occasions. She also recorded some great music, won six Grammys, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll, Blues and Grammy Halls of Fame.
After James had criticised Beyoncé for singing her song for Obama, she issued an apology saying she had only been joking, but she couldn’t resist adding that she would have sung the song better had she been asked to perform it. You have to like her style!