Blues and Badness: What Etta James Gave to Music

Blues and Badness: What Etta James Gave to Music


Etta James was truly larger than life. Categorizing her, attempting to put your finger on just what it was her transcendent voice did to you, even trying to find one musical style she did best, was bound to be met with frustration. The greats are like that. And when she died of Leukemia this January 20th, that’s what we lost: one of the greats.

And true to form, she never limited herself to just one genre, never stopped trying to blend elements in her own songs. The blues might have been, as she said, “her business,” and there’s no doubt she sang the blues second to none. But she also could more than pull off jazz, soul, rock, even funk. Those who think that her contribution to music began and ended with “At Last” are simply missing out.

She was a living reminder of those years when music was evolving by leaps and bounds, when a few of the best were able to shatter molds and give us some of contemporary pop’s most iconic songs. Just as other “blues” artists like Didley and Berry unexpectedly gave us what we now know to be rock and roll, Etta James went from being in another dime-a-dozen girl group to giving us our modern idea of soul and R&B.

It’s all the more remarkable when one considers the time from which James emerged was one in which artists were categorized and segregated in the most obvious ways. Even jukeboxes were separated into white and black when the young Jamesetta Hawkins began performing in the 1950s.

Born in Los Angeles in 1938, she never knew her father (who was rumored to be white). Her mother Dorothy was only 14 when she gave birth to Jamesetta, and was only sporadically around during these early years. One of her caregivers, a man she referred to in later years as “Sarge,” would often drunkenly awake her late at night to sing on demand for his poker buddies. These were traumatic experiences for the young Jamesetta.

All of this considered, it might have been easy for the young singer to completely lose her interest in singing, let alone keep exploring her voice. Other obstacles abounded. Though rock and roll was beginning to burgeon, the term itself offended the conservative sensibilities of 1950s America. When she recorded her first single “Roll With Me, Henry” with the influential Johnny Otis in 1954, its very title was considered sexually suggestive.

"At that time, you weren't allowed to say 'roll' because it was considered vulgar,” she recalled in an interview years later. “So when Georgia Gibbs did her version, she renamed it 'Dance With Me, Henry' and it went to No. 1 on the pop charts.” Gibbs, by the way, was white; it wasn’t rare in those days for white singers to gain much greater acclaim for Black artists’ work.

This raunchiness might fly in the face of those who have only hear the gentility of “At Last,” but then, the newly renamed Etta James was in many ways the archetypal early ‘50s rebel. At the age of sixteen she even forged her mother’s signature on a note declaring her to be of legal age in order to tour.

In her 1995 autobiography Rage to Survive, she wrote: "The bad girls ... had the look that I liked," she wrote in her 1995 autobiography, Rage to Survive. ''I wanted to be rare, I wanted to be noticed, I wanted to be exotic as a Cotton Club chorus girl, and I wanted to be obvious as the most flamboyant hooker on the street. I just wanted to be."

At a time when Blacks hanging our with whites (like, for example, Johnny Otis) provoked derision in many communities, and when a woman asserting her sexuality was enough to bring scandal down on anyone who dared, “just being” was itself a dangerous affair. But then, hearing the versatility of James’ singing voice, ranging from the gravelly gut-wrenching lows to the bright highs, was to hear honesty itself sung out. Regardless of any obstacle, social or personal, when she dared to sing, the words took on an irresistible power.

In the midst of the mythos that surrounded James’ later years, it became easy to forget just how real those obstacles were. She became addicted to heroin in the early ‘60s, and it was an addiction she struggled with clear into the 1980s.

Then there’s specifically the amount that’s forgotten about “At Last.” Any listener comparing the song to James’ earlier work will no doubt notice how strongly the string-laden poppiness of “At Last” contrasts with the ribald R&B of before. Leonard Chess, of the famed Chess records, was experimenting with turning James into a “crossover” star. What’s now regarded as her signature song charted appeared only briefly on the charts.

Separating the greatness of James’ work from her own personal struggles became even easier after the release of 2008’s Cadillac Records. Though the movie was openly fictionalized, James’ character was portrayed by Beyoncé Knowles as lovers with Leonard Chess, which was never true.

Like plenty others of her generation, James never really got the credit she deserved--even after her resurgence in popularity in the late ‘80s. It was Knowles, not James, who sang “At Last” at Barack Obama’s inaugural ball in early 2009. James rightly felt slighted, and it was hard to argue with her comments to an audience a few days later:

"Your President, the one with the big ears... he had that woman singing my song. She gone get her ass whipped... The great Beyoncé... I can't stand Beyoncé!”

Even as the greatness of Etta James the artist became inorganically severed from Etta James the human being, nobody could deny that her music was the real deal. This was true no matter if she was singing “Roll With Me, Henry,” “Tell Mama” or “At Last,” whether she was covering John Fogerty’s “Born On the Bayou” or Billie Holiday’s “Body and Soul,” she always made it her own.

Radical activist and professor Mark Naison at Fordham University put it this way:

“No artist ever performed with more passion, more grit, more raw energy, and more brilliance than she did. Or more integrity. Whenever I teach my ‘Rock and Roll To Hip Hop’ class, I play her music to show what could not cross over, could not be co-opted, could not be appropriated, could not be tamed, could not be imitated, could not be packaged.”

In other words, Etta James made music that mattered like few other artists could muster. It was music that told a story and made you feel it as she retold it every time. She also showed that if you’re going to come even close to doing that, you have to be a little bad and break a few boundaries.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist based in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (, and is a columnist for the SOCIARTS website. He can be reached at