Laughing Through the Tears: The Enduring Journey of Etta James

Etta James
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The recent movie Cadillac Records introduced Etta James to a generation theretofore familiar with the bawdy blueswoman only whenever her 1961 hit “At Last” is trotted out for couples’ first dances at wedding receptions. And despite Beyoncé’s valiant effort to capture the distressed soul and sassy demeanor of James in the film, few are still aware of the extent of her tumultuous life and of the sense of humor she invariably drew upon to sustain and relieve her through her troubled times. A survivor in the classic American tradition, James — like Ray Charles and Johnny Cash of recent note — is deserving of a full-length feature dedicated solely to her own storied life, for it is one where tragedy and comedy star as ubiquitous co-features, each inhering into the other, creating a tension of the most dramatic kind.

Jamesetta Hawkins’s life seemed fated for struggle the moment she first entered the world on January 25, 1938. Born in L.A.’s Watts district to a 16 year-old mother (Dorothy Hawkins) and a still-to-this-day unknown father (though Cadillac Records acknowledges the rumor that he was the infamous pool shark Minnesota Fats), the child was soon taken into the care of an aunt and then Dorothy’s landlords, both of whom were more equipped for motherhood than was the largely absent, party-loving birth mother. By the time she had reached her own teenage years, James was taking on all the characteristics of the much-feared juvenile delinquents that were becoming such a media sensation entering the 1950s. A serial shoplifter with various girl gangs, James — echoing the Marlon Brando and James Dean hoodlum heroes of the era — reflected on these times later in 1956, saying, “I think I was looking to do something wrong.”

Despite reveling in the danger, excitement, and freedom that the juvenile delinquent life afforded her, James soon channeled these rebellious inclinations into more productive outlets. A gospel singer since the age of five, she had long been drawn to the power and abandon of gospel music, but her musical inspirations ran secular, too, and her mother’s love of Billie Holiday introduced young James to the appeals of glamour and sin. A product of the next generation, though, James was particularly attracted to the burgeoning R&B sound that was emanating from black radio in the early ’50s. “My rebellious spirit ran to the hot-and-nasty rhythm and blues,” she later affirmed. Like forbidden fruit, she consumed the suggestive lyrics and sexy rhythms of Wynonie Harris, Big Joe Turner, and Hank Ballard & the Midnighters. The latter had been causing a stir throughout 1954 with the euphemistic “Work With Me, Annie”, a song which James later recalled with delight as “a nasty tune for grinding”. Inspiring her own ribald sense of humor and sensing an opportunistic moment, James set to writing a direct response to Ballard’s hit (a common practice of the time). The result, “Roll With Me, Henry”, was immediately picked up by omnipresent rock impresario Johnny Otis, who proceeded to invert Jamesetta into Etta James and to sign the then 15 year-old to a record deal. “Roll With Me, Henry” had hit number two on the Billboard R&B chart by early 1954, but its cross-over appeal was thwarted by a title that many radio stations still deemed too suggestive in its sexual double entendre. Thus was born the alternatively titled “The Wallflower”, a song that has become one of the quintessential examples of the thinly-veiled bawdy humor popular during that era.

Switching the narrative point-of-view from Ballard’s male to James’ female, “The Wallflower” ridiculed the male arrogance of Ballard’s original by showing the previously objectified female in charge of her own sexuality and decision-making. The authority and boasting remain intact, but here they are in the hands of the woman, who instructs (presumably from the back seats at the movies), “It’s intermission in a minute / So you better get with it.” The risqué lyrics are backed by the same soft gyrating chorus of “ah-ooh” sounds that propelled the “Annie” original. Though excised as the title, the key line, “Roll with me, Henry”, remains in the lyrics, playing off of the double meaning of “roll” as referring — at that time — to both dancing and sex. “You gotta roll with me Henry / You better roll it while the rollin’ is on,” purrs James in a voice one part seduction and one part self-irony. An early illustration of the comedic clout of the response song tradition, James showed with “The Wallflower” its particularly adept power when used for the purposes of man-mockery and gender-inversions. Such sexual celebration and sassy humor had not been witnessed in female popular music since the years of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Ethel Waters.

The newly nicknamed Miss Peaches (a reference to her fair skin, apparently, though not devoid of its own saucy innuendo) continued to act out her revenge fantasies through the bawdy humor of subsequent songs like “Tough Lover” and “Pushover”, the latter a sobering put-down of the ego-inflated “cool cats” of mid-’50s youth culture. “W-O-M-A-N”, released in 1955, saw James return to the response retort. This time the target of parody was Muddy Waters’ then-popular “Mannish Boy”, a song bursting with macho pride and male sexual boasting. “I’m man, I’m a full-grown maaannn,” Waters had growled, to which Miss Peaches responded (mirroring the Muddy Waters drawl), “Talkin’ bout you maaannn”, before topping it off with the emasculatory put-down, “Now, when it comes to movin’, boy you’re awful slow.” Unafraid to get down and dirty with the boys, James was able to simultaneously deflate male delusions of grandeur while inserting and empowering female (sexual) identities in the process. Her subversive weapon of choice? Humor.

As much as James used her songwriting and vocal skills as primary sources for empowerment and critique, her performances and image were equally significant in reflecting a public persona bursting with wit, wildness, and sassy radicalism. Though her real life was tormented by an endless stream of broken-hearted flings, lovesick cravings, and abandonment, James always laughed through the tears when it came to performing. With legs akimbo, hips on a swivel, and a mischievous glint in her eyes, James morphed into a ribald reveler on stage, becoming what critic David Ritz regarded as “a front-line feminist in attitude”. As if preparing for battle, James would lick her lips in anticipation, coolly stare down the audience, then let rip with unabashed displays of sexual gestures and vulgar affronts. “I gave off this don’t fuck-with-me vibe,” she admits.

James created the look to match the attitude, too. At a time — the mid-to-late ’50s — when conservative values reigned supreme, a time when expectations were for female artists to adopt girl-next-door propitious public images, Miss Peaches proudly and assertively rejected all such mainstream ideals. Fitted with tight dresses to accentuate her curves, James matched her bright white lipstick by dying her hair bleach-blonde (like the white female sex symbols of the day), while her sweeping false eyelashes jutted out from Cleopatra-styled arching eyeliner. Coupled with her lascivious stage moves and lyrical come-ons, an image was presented that implicitly mocked the Ozzie & Harriett decorum of the era. Such female iconography was unprecedented amongst female artists of the time, and perhaps finds its closest comparison in the similarly bold visual assertions of male rebels Little Richard and Esquerita. Like them, James’ image represented gravitation towards outsider associations, to the drag queens and prostitutes that signified the sexual taboos and fears of both the white and black mainstream. It is no coincidence that James — again like Little Richard and Esquerita — has throughout her career held a particular appeal within pockets of gay culture, amongst those she has called her “secret angels”.

Although James’ multi-faceted sex-centered humor offered subversive gestures that challenged the norms of gender, racial, and sexual identity, her trailblazing came at a price and her wit was not devoid of woes. As a light-skinned woman of color traveling around the nation with an all-black male band, James’ travails were not without their share of troubles. Stops and searches were routine as the police invariably mistook James for a white woman and were duly suspicious of why she was in a car full of black men. And if these social pressures were burdensome, James clearly also had many personal vulnerabilities that led her to relationships and behavior self-destructive in nature. Her autobiography, Rage to Survive, speaks painfully to the many abusive, emotionally unavailable, and fly-by-night men she seemed fated to be associated with, while her decade-long heroin addiction offered little solace or sanctuary from her personal pains.

After spending two brief terms in prison for drug-related offences in the ’60s, James finally shook her habit in the mid-’70s. Around this time she also spread her comedic wings further by covering Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” and “God’s Song”, two provocatively ironic numbers that satirize the institutions of slavery and religion, respectively. And while the ’80s were a down-time for James — as she battled with her escalating weight problem — recent years have seen the enduring Miss Peaches return to stages with all the spit ‘n’ vinegar that marked her heyday years of the late ’50s.

At a time when we witness provocat-hers like Amy Winehouse, Candye Kane, and Beth Ditto carrying the bawdy blueswoman baton into the new century, we should perhaps pause to recognize that their social confrontations were once those of James. Moreover, set against the backdrop of the censorious ’50s, within a business where women were perpetually pressured to be seen but not obscene, to speak a script but not speak extraneously, James was a subversive survivor, raging and laughing in the face of all the personal crises and patriarchal counter-forces she encountered and endured along the way.

The above essay is an outtake from Rebels Wit Attitude, a recently released book about subversive rock humorists published by PopMatters and Soft Skull Press.