In Defense of Etta James as Popular Music’s Most Honest Diva

Etta James
Eagle Rock

Etta James was a different kind of diva. The rough edges that helped formulate who she was contradicted the traditional sense of the term. To put her in a category alongside Barbara Streisand, Aretha Franklin or even Mariah Carey doesn’t just seem inadequate — it seems unfair. Those women base a lot of their reputation on their presence. James based her reputation on her life. There was rarely a sugarcoated moment in her performance and even when her comments went against popular opinion (see: anything she ever said about Beyonce or Barack Obama), there was always an inordinate amount of authenticity to every statement she made, every song she sang, and every theatrical move she offered onstage. 

Such is precisely what makes the recent Live at Montreux 1975-1993, an Eagle Rock collection that chronicles some of her more memorable performances from the Switzerland-based festival, so fascinating. If nothing else, the DVD serves as a strikingly honest reminder of how affecting her presence in the music world was and how unforgettable her legacy within the rhythm and soul lexicon should always be. Featuring video from 1975, 1977, 1978, 1989, 1990 and 1993, the Montreux performances combine to embody the eclectic nature of James’ career, a career that should be viewed as nothing less than legendary, and a career that is as polarizing as it is inspirational. 

Actually, it’s that exact kind of revelatory aura that separates the singer from her diva contemporaries. So often, we are asked to buy into an artist’s work because of the grandeur that is attached to one’s reputation, but James never really had that luxury. Her biological parents were almost non-existent during her upbringing, thus forcing a childhood filled with a revolving door of caretakers, including her mother, who reportedly would come and go as she pleased. By the end of the ’70s, she had already found heroin and her struggles with the drug would be well documented in the 2008 Beyonce-led pseudo bio pic, Cadillac Records, a flick that also chronicled her contentious relationship with Leonard Chess. She struggled with weight for the better part of her life, which is an oddly prevalent aspect of the appearances that make up Live at Montreux, as it becomes impossible to ignore the difference in stage presence such a hindrance brought as the years passed. And then, as if all of those blocks weren’t enough to fully complete a checkered past, she became hooked on painkillers in 2010, two years before she would eventually succumb to a battle with leukemia and pass away just five days prior to her 74th birthday.

Or, as one may surmise after spending only a couple minutes watching the icon perform, James never really had things easy. 

“… I didn’t like being cast in the role of the Great Earth Mother, the gal you come to for comfort and easy sex,” she wrote in 2003’s Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story, while reflecting on her disdain for one of her more popular hits, “Tell Mama”. “Nothing was easy back then. I was pregnant with a child I wanted, but with a man I was too weak to lose. I was slipping back into the easy escape of good-feeling drugs that, more and more, were making me feel bad. My career was building up, even as my real life was falling apart.”

But even with that hardship in mind, it must be stated that without those obstacles, the woman born Jamesetta Hawkins more than likely wouldn’t have turned out to be so damn special. And maybe that’s why now, ten months after she has passed on, it’s just a little bit easier to appreciate her for what she embodied: an artist of epic proportions that could relate to the struggles of a mere mortal. This bleeds through the screen when looking back on how addicting her presence on a stage can be. She’s raw. She’s angry. She’s shy. She’s loud. She’s mesmerizing. She’s emotional. She’s inspirational. And most of all, she’s fiery. 

Oh, boy, is she fiery.

That passion turns songs like “A Lover Is Forever” and “How Strong Is a Woman” into bona fide sermons of female power. The great irony, of course, is the notion that she reportedly hated being filmed while performing, which only makes the recent Montreux release that much more confounding. You can see her shy away from the cameras and the crowd at times, turning her back on the audience and allowing the ends of lyrics to trail off. Yet almost immediately after turning away, she almost always becomes the subject of some of the most transfixing video recordings ever produced when, for example, she launches into “I’d Rather Go Blind”, a composition that proves to be the single moment of true perfection in James’ career.

Live at Montreux comes fully equipped with two renditions of the classic, and if there was ever an opportunity to dissect how much of a contradiction the singer could be, it comes in the form of the 1975 performance sitting next to the 1993 recording. Clad in a dress that looks like overalls and sporting a wide afro pointing straight to the heavens as though a magnet was on the other side, the 1975 version is a lesson in musical theater. Not only does it stretch the song into an eight-minute psychedelia soul experiment, but as James stomps around the foreground, sweat dripping from her doll-like face, it creates an image of the diva that proves to be surprisingly hypnotic. Her eyes closed, she removes the skinny microphone from the the front of her face, and the crowd is treated to a repeat of the song’s final verse without the aide of electronic projection as the band continues to play.

It’s powerful stuff, not only for the sound of a bleeding heart that is conveyed so acutely, but also for the amount of pain to which that voice seems to cling. 

It’s a pain as individualized as a single instrument can get, and it’s a pain that doesn’t waver a bit during the subsequent 1993 performance. The whole display is a quick look at how attached James grew to the songs she made popular. There is a palpable connection to the words that is quite literally not found in most, if not all, other performances from other so-called divas of popular music’s last 50 years. Never mind the golden robe that a then-300-plus-pound Etta James is relegated to wearing in 1993 or the admittedly less-than-stellar vocal performances she gives during the latter stages of her career that are depicted here — the amount of power and intensity that she pumps into each utterance she offers is unparalleled. It’s believable only because of its honesty. 

There’s a reason Beyonce couldn’t ever give “I’d Rather Go Blind” its proper justice, and that reason is smothered in interdependence. You can’t sing those words with the type of conviction James always so seamlessly portrayed if you haven’t lived through the life to which James laid claim. It’s not that Mrs. Jay-Z didn’t or doesn’t have the proper technical chops to pull off a performance of the song. And it isn’t as though there is anything fundamentally wrong with the way the former Destiny’s Child leader attacks a recording. But all told, you simply can’t teach what James brought to the table every time she stepped behind a microphone. You had to live it to know it.

“Etta was someone who had to establish her turf, set her own boundaries, in music and everything else in life,” music producer David Rivkin writes in the Live at Montreux liner notes. “She needed to know where she stood, and she needed you to know that, too. She spent so much energy and heart bridging the gaps between R&B and rock and roll and everything in between, it would have been easy for someone else to get lost. But not Etta. She always knew where she stood and always knew where she was going. It just took the rest of the world a while to find that out.”

That it did, and unfortunately that journey into discovering who James was and where she was going was constantly overshadowed by her contentious reputation. On some level, it preceded her so much that it created a detriment to some music fans that they simply couldn’t ignore and frankly, didn’t want to ignore. It’s sad, too, because as Live at Montreux illustrates so perfectly, James was a peerless talent. She was the only kind of diva that transcended one of the most essential aspects of being labeled as such — ego — and single-handedly humanized the role of a star by allowing her work the ability to connect with those who were willing to truly dive into her songs, her voice, her performance, and that fire.

My God. Who can’t connect with that fire?

At worst, she was a soul singer who spent her life misunderstood by most everybody around her. Though at best, James was one of the most important female crooners in pop history not because of her sheer talent, but because of the way she never allowed the perception of a female pop star to get in the way of who she truly wanted to be: a fantastically translucent artist. Etta James was a different kind of diva, indeed.