Etta James died last Friday, and the outpouring of praise and tributes came as usual. That’s not to say she wasn’t deserving of the various titles that came up, like Jerry Wexler’s famous coronation “the greatest of all modern blues singers”. But for James, she’d been hearing it for a while, and for someone like her, it was quite a thing to be memorialized before she felt she was done.
Despite recording some of the most indelible, iconic R&B tracks of the 1950s and ‘60s, James never achieved the same level of fame or recognition that some of her peers did. She consistently charted on the R&B charts and remained a top concert draw, but crossover success eluded her; she never became an Aretha Franklin or Diana Ross. Not that her disposition and habits would have let her—James lost good portions of her career to her drug habit, and her forceful personality would prove as much a drawback as an asset.
James entered a new phase of her career after time at the Betty Ford Clinic, emerging to increasing recognition of her talent. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and won a Grammy in 1994. Neo-soul’s rise in the late ‘90s and early 2000s kept James in the conversation, and she toured and recorded consistently until 2006.
For someone as self-possessed and determined as James (her autobiography with David Ritz is called A Rage to Survive), to see herself memorialized onscreen in 2008’s Cadillac Records must have been frustrating. The film took heavy liberties with the story of Chess Records (James’ label for much of her heyday) and James’ own life. She had strong words for Beyonce Knowles after the singer (who had portrayed James in the film) performed one of James’ definitive songs “At Last”, at President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Ball. Though she later said she was joking, James was clearly hurt at being passed over for the honor.
Listening to James’ records, hers isn’t the voice of a woman that would be thrilled about relinquishing control of her own songs, her own legacy, to a new generation. But in an increasingly accelerated entertainment culture, it became fashionable to namecheck James—she was just obscure enough to be “authentic”, but still raw and gritty enough to be edgy. That’s not to take away from her talent, but she was one of a generation of artists that were increasingly being relegated to the background by modern interpreters of their style, even as those interpreters relentlessly praised her. And not all of it was good, or accurate: to see a drastically altered version of you appear in a major Hollywood film in your own life would be jarring for anyone, and to someone like James, it was especially rough.
James’ predicament was one of her generation. Like the Motown session musicians the Funk Brothers, she would live to see a new generation give her the praise that had always escaped her. But like them, she’d given most of her life to the music and remained relatively obscure. People know Aretha. People know Diana. But until the later half of her life, few people knew Etta. Which is why her anger at being denied the opportunity to sing her song is understandable, doubly so knowing about her personality.
Etta James was one of a kind. And it’s unfortunate that it took people so long to notice. For someone so forceful and passionate, to have to fight so long for the spotlight only to have it taken away is an especially difficult turn. That she dealt with worse is a small consolation, but one that James, as resilient and strong as she was, doubtlessly would have agreed with.