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Etta James: rebel with a cause


Etta James, the big-voiced singer with the rowdy persona, has died after a long battle with leukemia. She was 73.

With her dyed blond hair piled high, eyes cat-shaped by mascara and big hoop earrings, she cultivated a whorish look and a loud, blustery attitude that made her seem tough, but by her own admission she was mushy inside and often confused and fearful.

The kind of men she attracted–users, pushers, pimps, tough guys–could easily see through the hard shell and play to the soft inner core. Still, she usually wound up having an affair with them and, of course, they proved to be bad, often violent choices.

But Etta was only acting out the life she had been exposed to by her mother and her aunt; a life that put her on a lifelong search for her dad or a substitute protector.

Etta had her first hit song–“Roll With Me, Henry”–which she wrote when she was 14, followed soon after by another hit, “Good Rockin’ Daddy.” But perhaps her most enduring song was “At Last,” a jazzy ballad she recorded 50-some years ago at the age of 22. “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” was written with church in mind, she said, but it turned into a boisterous rocker that showcased her big voice.

James lived all-out, and her lifestyle made her both famous and infamous, as catalogued in several of her best-selling recordings. She had a rebellious streak that lasted much of her life. In her teen years during the early ’50s, she was defiant and brazen, much like many of today’s urban youth in their sagging trousers, showing their backside to a neglectful, unnurturing world,
Although she long ago came to be revered internationally as a singer, as late as 1972 she and her husband, Artis Mills, were committing serious crimes to supply their raging drug habits.

Perpetually broke due to her heavy consumption of drugs, she was in and out of jails for writing bad checks, phony prescriptions, narcotics, or jumping bail, which she did in Alaska.

Musically, Etta would eventually develop a reputation for bridging the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll. Rolling Stone ranked her No. 22 on its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and No. 62 on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists. She was the winner of six Grammys and 17 Blues Music Awards. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of 1993, the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2001, and the Grammy Hall of Fame in both 1999 and 2008.

Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles on Jan. 23, 1938, she was a product of two mysteries.

The first was her mother, Dorothy, whom she adored as a child but who seemed almost devoid of any motherly instincts.

The second mystery was father, a man she longed to know. Although she would never be completely sure, she came to suspect that he was the famous White pool hustler–Minnesota Fats–who was known to have a penchant for “colored” girls and who frequented Central Avenue, the city’s nightlife mecca in the ’30s ’40s and ’50s.

Dorothy, her mother, had been an orphan, and she bore Etta at 14. She constantly preached caution concerning men, but hardly practiced what she preached. She was addicted to both men and night life, and would often be gone from her daughter for weeks at a time. Dorothy had no compunction about casting Etta off on others, but would come crashing back into her life months later, often upsetting both the child and those caring for her.

Etta spent much of her life trying to reconcile her love-hate relationship with Dorothy, whom she dubbed the glamorous, “Midnight Lady.” And in her 50s she finally got the nerve–and the opportunity–to meet Rudolf Wanderone, or “Minnesota Fats,” the man who she suspected was her father.

Her birth name, Jamesetta, was a combination of the names of her mother’s sister, Cozetta, and her Uncle James–thus, Jamesetta. The couple became her legal guardians while Dorothy, her teenage mother, served time in reform school. Etta believed it was her aunt and uncle who first noticed her musical nature while she was an infant.

“They said I was fixated on jukeboxes,” Etta wrote in her book, “Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story,” a biography written with David Ritz. “I’d toddle over and point to one particular song–‘Honky Tonk Blues’ by Meade Lux Lewis, a hot boogie-woogie instrumental. I’d holler until someone put a nickel in the box and played that number. Then with my little ringlets bouncing on top of my head, I’d do a dance and sing along with baby sounds. The second it was through, I’d start crying until someone played the damned thing again.”

Her Aunt Cozetta was an unapologetic prostitute–clearly not the kind of person to care for her sister’s baby. As soon as she could, Dorothy gave Etta to a childless middle-age couple, Lula and Jesse Rogers, her landlords at the time. They would be the closest Etta would come to having a real mother and father.

For Lula, a God-fearing woman, having the child to care for was the equivalent of an early ticket to heaven. From the time Etta began talking, she called her “Mama Lula.”

“She was the woman who wound up raising me while Dorothy ran in and out of my life like a crazy nightmare,” Etta wrote in “Rage to Survive.” As Etta put it: “One mother was nurturing while the other was neurotic.”

Lula attended St. Paul Baptist Church at Naomi and 21st Street, and it could not have been a better musical milieu for Etta. Even as a child, she fell in love with the Gospel music. “We had one of the biggest, baddest, hippest choirs anywhere, the Echoes of Eden,” she wrote. “Our choirmaster, Professor James Earle Hines, was my first and heaviest musical mentor, the cat who taught me to sing.”

Among the stars who attended St. Paul were Gospel greats Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Sallie Martin Singers. Joe Adams, then a well-known deejay who would later manage Ray Charles, was also a member. There were outstanding female singers at the church. However, as a child Etta was attracted to the male singers. She imitated their style and sound, especially that of Professor Hines.

Hines, in turn, was so impressed with her singing at age 5 that he became her voice teacher and the enduring pattern for her vocal style.

“In the forties, word got out that a girlchild in the St. Paul Baptist could sing like a full-grown woman, with grown-up feelings and strength,” Etta wrote. She had become a drawing card for the church, and others, including a number of White celebrities, who would venture into the community to hear her sing.

Etta had a great life for several years, even with constant interruptions from Dorothy. She had a stable home, attentive parents who took her to school, provided for her dance and piano classes–all the things her own mother could not provide. But when Mama Lula’s health began to fail, Etta was forced to become a preteen caretaker. Weakened by cancer and, eventually, a series strokes, Mama Lula soon passed from the scene, shattering Etta’s world. To make matters worse, moments after Mama Lula’s memorial service, Dorothy snatched her 12-year-old daughter away so quickly that she wasn’t allowed to say goodbye to Jesse, her foster dad, or even gather her belongings.

It proved to be a traumatic experience for Etta–“one of many bizarre breaks from my normal life,” as she put it in the book–from being in a comfortable home with two people who loved her to living with Dorothy in San Francisco, traipsing from one seedy, flea bag hotel to another with a mother who often resented and neglected her.

Alone much of the time, Etta began to express her pent-up rage. She regularly ditched school, began running with gangs and drinking. She was sentenced to a juvenile home for 30 days for pushing a girl down a flight of stairs, breaking her arm. By 14, the self-confessed wild child was running the streets of San Francisco at all hours of the night with other vagabond teens, and hanging out in honky-tonks, where she could hear the kind of music she preferred–the blues.
Etta and two friends formed a girl’s group called the Creolettes that soon began winning amateur competitions around the city. The group caused a local stir when they performed “Roll with Me, Henry,” the song Etta wrote as an answer to the suggestive lyrics of  “Work With Me, Annie,” a song by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters.

Johnny Otis, the well-known Los Angeles bandleader, heard the Creolettes sing while his revue was performing in San Francisco and persuaded the girls to come to Los Angeles, according to the book. Etta forged her mother’s signature, giving herself permission to leave town with the band.

Otis changed the Creolettes name to Peaches and recorded them singing “Roll With Me, Henry” on the Modern Records label, also the home of such up-and-coming blues greats as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Pee Wee Crayton and Elmore James. The record took off, but under the title, “The Wallflower.”

At 17, she followed “Henry” with “Good Rockin’ Daddy,” which was written by Richard Berry, who would go on to fame with such hits as “Louie Louie.”

Otis also changed Etta’s name, flipping it from Jamesetta to Etta James, and packaged her as a solo singer. As her records began to take off, so did Etta, touring the country at 17 with saxophone player Big Jim Wynn and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. She became “the crazy blond-haired yellow girl from California.”

Other tours would include the likes of Little Willie John, whose big hit was “Fever,” and Bo Diddley, The Clovers, The Five Keys, and later Little Richard, The Shirelles, Charles Brown, Jackie Wilson, and the young Marvin Gaye.

It was with Leonard and Phil Chess, two Polish Jews who owned Chess Records in Chicago, that she achieved her greatest acclaim. Among other Chess artists were Chuck Berry, Memphis Slim, Howlin’ Wolf, and Willie Dixon. Leonard Chess was anxious to draw Black female artists to the label, and he used Etta to that purpose. He put her on staff as writer and singer, and paid her room and board, which she said was more than Modern Records had done for her.

Leonard Chess wanted her to sing “triangle songs,” or songs about a pining woman caught in a triangle with her boyfriend and another woman, such songs as “All I Could Do Was Cry.” These were sad ballads in which the singer was the party scorned. “Cry,” her first triangle song, turned out to be a big hit, but Etta saw little of the income from most of her hits. She also recorded such numbers as “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and “If I Can’t Have You” with Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows, her boyfriend at the time.

In her 20s, Etta’s rebellious spirit led her into hard drugs, and heroin became her drug of choice.

“It took me where I wanted to go–far away, out of it–and in a hurry. All pain, thought, and confusion melted under its lazy hazy spell.”

But there were long periods when Etta would be “clean.” It was during one such period that she became a Muslim and took the name Jamesetta X. It happened in Atlanta during a period in the ’60s when work was slow. On such days, she and her friend would head over to Temple 15 to hear Louis Farrakhan. When she moved back to New York, she’d go to Temple 7 to hear Malcolm X.
But Etta chafed under the strictures of Islam. Her world was that of junkies, petty criminals and untrustworthy, violent men and lurid women. These were the people she identified with and felt comfortable around. She would get a big payday one week and be broke the next, having snorted much of her largess up her nose or shot it into her veins.

But for all her loud, mannish ways, she had a strong mothering instinct, and finally had her first son, Donto, by a violent pimp wannabe named Billy Foster.

Etta met her husband, Artis Mills, while on tour in Alaska. Although Mills had been a pimp, he proved to be strong, caring and trusting, and Etta fell immediately in love with him. But like Etta, Mills became a junkie.

In desperate times without narcotics, they began running scams, strong-arming people and writing bad checks to fulfill their need for drugs. Soon Los Angeles was too hot for the couple and they fled to Texas only to get caught during a drug bust. Mills stepped up to take the wrap, claiming that the drugs were his alone, not Etta’s. For his chivalry, he spent almost 10 years in a Texas penitentiary.

By the time Mills got out, Etta had another son, Sametto, a contraction of the names Sam and Etta. Sam was an ex-junkie she’d met at a drug rehabilitation facility in Tarzana. Because he had been a teacher-trainer at the facility, she thought he’d be good for her, but he turned out to be the same kind of violent addict she’d attracted before.

After his release, Mills easily reconciled with Etta. No longer an addict, he provided balance in her life and raised the boys during her frequent periods away on tour. Both boys were musically trained and eventually began playing in their mother’s band.

In the movie, “Cadillac Records,” the character based on Etta’s life was portrayed by Beyonce Knowles. The film, however, took several liberties with the facts, implying that Etta’s career was launched at Chess Records. But Etta was already a well-known singer when she signed on to Chess’ Argosy label.

Etta’s last controversy occurred while she was on tour in Seattle. She created a furor and threatened to “whup Beyonce’s ass” for performing her 1961 hit, “At Last.” at President Obama’s inaugural ball. Etta later said she was joking.

After being hospitalized with a staphylococcus infection in 2010, her son Donto revealed that she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease the year before. In January 2011, it was announced that she had leukemia and was undergoing chemotherapy.

Etta, who would have turned 74 on Wednesday, died at a hospital in Riverside, Calif.