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Monday, December 29, 2008

Cadillac Records and Etta James

Mike and I went to see Cadillac Records yesterday. It’s the fictionalized story of the rise of Chess Records and the development of some of its stars. If you love music – R&B and blues in particular – go straight to the theater to see this movie.

Mike knew much more than I about Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, two stars who came from Chess, but I was there to see the portions about Etta James, one of the most amazing vocalists ever. I’m our household’s expert on Miss Etta.

Beyonce Knowles played Etta. Beyonce is a beautiful woman with a great voice, but in my knowledgeable yet humble opinion, she wasn’t up to the part. She worked at portraying the earthiness and grit of Miss James, but it didn’t quite come off. As an aside, Etta James always had a well-rounded, womanly figure, and Beyonce’s attractive shape is quite slender. Another piece of realism lost.

The vocals, too, lacked the Etta James’ emotion. Beyonce sounds good enough in the movie, but then go home and listen to an Etta James recording. You’ll see. I think that Jennifer Hudson would have come much closer to a portrayal that was great instead of just good.

Mike pointed out that Beyonce was executive producer of the film, so that answers that question.

Miss James was born 1938 in Los Angeles to a 14-year-old mother who placed little Jamesetta Hawkins in a good foster home. There was never an acknowledgement from her absent father, but it was always rumored that he was the famous pool player Minnesota Fats. Many believe that Miss James and her son Donto have a strong resemblance to the pool player.

The older couple who took in baby Etta had a comfortable lifestyle and began giving the child singing lessons when she was five. The child was recognized as a singing prodigy. The grandmother died when Etta was 12. Her mother arrived on the day of the funeral and took the girl home with her to San Francisco.

By 14 Miss James had formed a singing group, The Peaches (her nickname). She was about 15 when she joined the Johnny Otis Revue with a fake permission letter supposedly from her mom. At 16 she cut her first record and had a hit at 17.

Miss James has been inducted into both the Rock & Roll and the Blues Halls of Fame in addition to receiving Grammys and numerous other awards.

Traveling that road was turbulent, however. Miss James struggled with a lengthy addiction to heroin as well as relationships with men. In her later life, obesity became the issue which she finally resolved with a gastric bypass and improved lifestyle.

It may well be the pain and pleasures of her life that forged the emotion and talent into the performer that Miss James became. She can purr through classy ballads such as At Last, Fool That I Am, and Sunday Kind of Love, then growl and claw her way through songs like Jump Into My Fire, Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home, and Tell Mama.

In concert, she can transform before your eyes.

I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing her perform five or six times. The first was at the Doheny Blues Festival in south Orange County, CA. The open-air venue was so huge that niece Shannon and I could barely see the stage. Ahh, but we could hear her.

The best time, very best time was at the House of Blues in Hollywood. Shannon and I got there really early to run for a good place in the standing venue. We may have had to knock aside a few less committed fans, but when the curtains opened we were standing directly in front of Etta James at a distance of no more than 10 feet. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

The next to the last time I saw her (the last time was with Mike) was in 2003, also at that House of Blues. Miss Etta was recording a live CD there, and a friend got us into the club. I wasn’t as close as the first time I saw her there, but I was still one happy lady.

I noticed that her show was “tidied up” a bit for the video cameras. In a live show that isn’t going to become a DVD, Miss Etta can be flirty, mischievous and outright bawdy. I just love that lady!

By the way, the DVD is titled Burnin’ Down the House, and I spotted myself in a few of the audience shots. Dark hair, black lace top, exultant smile – that would be me.

Years ago, Miss James wrote a candid autobiography titled A Rage to Survive. Upon reading it, I was stunned at her willingness to lay open all of her painful past for the world to view. There should be a movie about her life, and I wish that she would initiate the project now so that she can maintain the honesty. Maybe she’d hire Jennifer Hudson.

Here are three of Miss Etta’s songs for your enjoyment. At Last has become even more special to me in recent years. It was our “wedding march” when Mike and I remarried in ’04.

At Last -
Tell Mama -
Something’s Got a Hold on Me -

1 comment:

Willow Goldentree said...

I love Etta James. Thank you for posting this and I hope you're having a wonderful New Years.