“I wanna show that gospel, country, blues, rhythm and blues, jazz, rock ’n’ roll are all just really one thing. Those are the American music and that is the American culture,” said Etta James, who died of leukemia on Friday at the age of 73, and who fused together all of these music genres in her long, tumultuous career.
Yet, in doing so, she never made American music homogeneous: she merely put her imprimatur on soul, jazz, the blues, rock and so on, making every song she sang absolutely her own.
As tributes to the great artist continue to pour out, it is Roseanne Barr, of all people, who seems hell-bent on best remembering, even vindicating, Lady James.
Barr went on Twitter on Friday and raved about James’s mesmerizing 1995 memoir, Rage to Survive, then seethed that “I lost ALL respect for Obama when he dissed Etta James in favour of Beyoncé. No respect for women at all ...”
Barr is referring to one of the President’s 10 inauguration balls in 2009: the gala musical performance, which featured Sheryl Crow, Herbie Hancock, Bono and Beyoncé, who was invited to sing At Last for his spot-lit slow dance with Michelle Obama.
At Last was Etta James’s signature song, and she had been performing the 1941 Mack Gordon and Harry Warren song since 1960. Her rendition was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
Beyoncé had just played Etta James in the film Cadillac Records, but the question remains: His obviously disquieting taste in music notwithstanding, why would Obama insult one of the greatest female artists in history by not inviting her to sing her own song, and by inviting her impersonator?
One feels that – with this guest list – if John Coltrane had been alive, Herbie Hancock would still have made the cut. Beyoncé does not sing the song nearly as well, and lacks the heart to sing it the way James did.
The blond-beehived, cat-eyed James struggled with addiction and obesity for a great deal of her adult life; she grew up with a single mother she called “the Mystery Lady,” and was a self-described wild child and juvenile delinquent. But she lived beautifully: The “rage” in her book title refers to her hatred of injustice and exploitation; it refers also to her burning desire to express her sweet, sharp, melancholy, roaring self.
And she was sharp-tongued, no shrinking violet. At a concert in Seattle in 2009, James told the crowd that she disliked the President and Beyoncé, adding that she “had no business up there singing ... singing my song that I’ve been singing forever.”
A perfectly reasonable, if not poignant, remark. Yet James received so much flak that her son to this day chalks up her comments as signs of the “drug-induced dementia” that shadowed her last days.
“There’s no damn business like show business,” Billie Holiday once said. “You have to smile to keep from throwing up.”
The bit about vomiting has to do with the way in which true genius – like Holiday’s, like James’s – is revered and slighted in that milieu. Admittedly, James’s career has been increasingly feted with major awards since the 1990s, and so many singers, including Beyoncé, are expressing their great admiration and debt to her.
But if she is such a legend, why was she not pushed forward more in her life?
There was nothing simple, or easily mainstreamed, about the way James sang. Pure soul is not easy to listen to; it is an emotional assault. And she did come up at a time when black artists had a hard time and/or resisted crossing over.
And there was her constant pain, a terrible byproduct of drawing – as her admirer Amy Winehouse did – so deeply from the heart. Ultimately, great talent is not for everyone. It asks too much of our own emotions, aesthetics and artistic intelligence.
I saw her perform in the 1990s before a respectably large audience, but by no means huge; a friend saw her play at the tiny Brunswick House (a Toronto college bar) around the same time. She was rarely asked to appear at major events or to do major interviews. James was not hot news by any stretch of the imagination.
She did appear on TV to sing At Last in 2009, on Dancing with the Stars – a sad, tacky show.
Still, she sang it with everything she had. As she observed of Holiday, “She couldn’t lie. … The woman just didn’t know how to fake her feelings.”
James, at the very least, would have known that her work stands alone; that it leaves us with a record of her life, and of the lives of all striving, passionate and fearless women.
From her raunchy, sexy songs (the then-scandalous and still-hot Roll with Me Henry and Good Rockin’ Daddy) to her piercing ballads ( Tell Mama, I’ve Been Lovin’ You Too Long and I’d Rather Go Blind) to her always-unexpected takes on rock (2011’s Welcome to the Jungle) and her stunning tribute to Lady Day (1993’s movingly titled Mystery Lady), James created, over all, a discourse about a black woman in America, as she intended, in addition to a gorgeous mystery about love and pain, and how hard it is – how hard she raged – to find, to realize, a dream to call her own.Report Typo/Error
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