Etta James: Still Singing Her Song

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After five decades in the music business, Etta James continues to draw fans. Her signature song, "At Last" remains a favorite and soon R&B singer Beyonce will portray the singer in a new movie, "Cadillac Records."

DAVE DAVIES, host:

The new film "Cadillac Records" tells the story of the Chicago Blues and R&B label Chess Records. It stars Beyonce Knowles as singer Etta James and Jeffrey Wright as blues guitarist and singer Muddy Waters. Etta James got her start at the age of 16 when she was discovered by Johnny Otis and began performing in his traveling R&B review. By age 17, she had her first hit, "Roll With Me, Henry," an answer song to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie." James began recording with Chess in 1960, and her hits include, "All I Can Do Is Cry," "Trust In Me," Something's Got A Hold On Me," and probably her best known hit, "At Last." We'll hear Etta James recording of "At Last" later, but first let's listen to Beyonce Knowles' version recorded for the new film "Cadillac Records."

Ms. BEYONCE KNOWLES (R&B Singer): (Singing) At last, my love has come along. My lonely days are over, and life is like a song. Oh, yeah, at last the skies above…

DAVIES: Beyonce Knowles singing Etta James' hit "At Last". Terry Gross spoke with James in 1994.

TERRY GROSS: You grew up in a foster home. I think when your mother had you she was 14 years old.

Ms. ETTA JAMES (R&B Singer): Right. She was a kid and, you know, I had feelings about all that kind of stuff for years, and I went to therapy and all about it. But then as I got older I realized that she really - she really did the best for me. She put me in a lovely home. The people were, you know, lovely to me. They never said that they were my real parents, I mean, I always knew I had this good-looking, you know, high-stepping mom, and she was like only 14 years older than me. And so, she did the best for me because if she had tried to take me with her, she was just a child. What would she have done with me? Would I have been singing today? Would I have been anything, you know?

GROSS: What was your foster family like?

Ms. JAMES: They were lovely. They were older people, and they had property, and they lived in the east side, lower east side of Los Angeles. And my grandmother was a church lady, and they believed in, you know, they gave me singing lessons at five. And until my grandmother passed away at 12, that is when my mother came back, came to get me because I had nothing but my grandfather there in the house and my mother wanted me to be with her. And she came the day of the funeral to pick me up, to take me back to San Francisco. So, that's - at San Francisco - oh I was listening to little stuff on the sly but I wasn't interested in secular music. But once I got to San Francisco, I like, I grew horns and a tail. I really turned into, you know, the real street kid. I was kind of like a runaway, but I had a mother, you know what I mean, and I had a place to stay.

GROSS: You know what I'd like to do? I'd like to play one of your rhythm and blues recordings that has a very gospel sound to it. I want to play "Something's Got a Hold On Me" from 1961. Do you think of this as having a gospel sound?

Ms. JAMES: Matter of fact, it is a gospel song. We wrote that song, and we adapted it from a gospel song. And the gospel song was "Something's Got a Hold On Me, It Must Be the Lord."

GROSS: And in your song it's "It Must Be Love."

Ms. JAMES: "It Must Be Love," right. Now, don't get me, because I'm not the one who decided to, but I was one of the writers. I just kind of said, OK well, let's go, rock and roll.

GROSS: This is Etta James, recorded in 1961.

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Oh, sometimes I get a good feeling, yeah, I get a feeling that I never, never, never, never had before, no no, And I just wanna tell you right now, I believe, I really do believe that something's got a hold on me, yeah, Oh, it must be love, Oh, something's got a hold on me right now child, Oh, it must be love, Let me tell you now, I've got a feeling, I feel so strange, Everything about me seems to have changed, Step by step, I got a brand new walk, I even sound sweeter when I talk I said, oh, oh, oh, oh hey yeah, It must be love. You know it must be love. Let me tell you now.

GROSS: It wasn't too long after you moved in with your mother that you actually went on the road. I mean, Johnny Otis, who had a now famous rhythm and blues touring review, got you into the show. He discovered you. But how did you audition for him? How did you find him or he find you?

Ms. JAMES: Well, it kind of, yeah, I think it was kind of a little bit of both, really. But he really found me, because I wasn't - at that time, my mother - I had ran away from home. And I went and I stayed with two girls, one named Abby and Jean who later became the Peaches, you know. It used to be Etta James and the Peaches. And we had wrote an answer to the song "Work With Me, Annie."

GROSS: The Hank Ballard record.

Ms. JAMES: Right. So, during those days, you know, everybody would make an answer. He said, work with me Annie then we said, roll with me, Henry. So, one night the young girl and myself, they were - we were the same age, I think we were both like 16 and the older sister was like 24, and she went out to a dance in the Fillmore district which was, you know, a heavy drag district of San Francisco. She went to see the Johnny Otis band.

All of a sudden we got a call that night, and it was Abby calling us back to say, listen, guess who I'm with, I'm with Johnny Otis. And we go, oh Johnny Otis. And she said, yeah, Johnny Otis. I told him - I told him that we have a girl group, and he says he wants to hear us. And I said, yeah, right. How does he want to hear us? We're out there in the project in the boonies, right? And she says, oh, he's at the hotel there and all of the band and everything. And myself and the girl, we looked at each other and said, yeah right. Now, we're 15-year-olds and we're going to the hotel with the band and Johnny Otis?

Johnny Otis was like about a 34 or 35-year-old man. So, we said, oh no, that's all right, that's all right, we'll just - we'll cool that and everything. So Johnny Otis snatched the phone from her. And it was Johnny Otis. You know, we heard that voice, you know. And he said, hi, how are you doing? And we said, oh, we're doing alright. He says, I hear you guys got a great group. I hear you got a song, a couple of songs and I'd like to hear you. And he says, how about catching a cab, I'll pay the cab fare, and I'll meet you out front. He said, don't worry, nobody is going to bother you. He says OK, so we got up and got dressed, got in the cab, we went down there.

Sure enough as we pulled up we saw this tall man, you know, we'd all seen pictures of Johnny Otis with the nice hair and he looked like - he looked like a tall, kind of, like a creole man with a nice mustache and a beard and, you know, nice pompadour hair, and he was standing there all stately, and he had two or three more guys with him. One guy was his manager, it was a much older man. And when we got there he says, oh, I'm glad to see you, and come on up and let's see what - let's hear you. So we went upstairs to his room, and we sang "How Deep is the Ocean" and "For All We Know" and "Street of Dreams" and…

GROSS: So you auditioned for Johnny Otis. He liked your singing, I suppose, and invited you to go on a tour, but you were still a minor. Did you have to get your mother's permission?

Ms. JAMES: Well, that was the trick there. My mother - I knew my mother wasn't going to let me go. But I told him - he says, how old are you? I said, 18, which he knew that was a lie. And he says, well, you know what? I would like to take you guys to Los Angeles tomorrow to make a record. And he says, can I speak with your mother? I said, no, I can't find her right now. She's working. And he says, well, can you go home and get permission from your mother, get something in writing stating that you can travel, and give me your mother's address and phone number and all this stuff and saying that you can travel, you're allowed to travel with me and have her to sign it and date it. I said, oh yeah, I can do that. So sure enough, that's what I did. I went home, I wrote the note.

GROSS: Oh, I see, right.

Ms. JAMES: And I brought the note back with a tiny little bag, little plastic bag or something with some clothes in it. And myself and the two girls got on Johnny's bus and we split to L.A.

GROSS: So, why don't we hear the first song that you recorded, and this was the first thing recorded after going on the road with Johnny Otis, and it's "Roll With Me, Henry," also called "WallFlower."

Ms. JAMES: You can call it "Dance With Me, Henry."

GROSS: Yeah, called "Dance With Me, Henry," also, and this is Etta James.

(Soundbite of the song "Roll With Me Henry" by Etta James)

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Hey Baby, what do I have to do, to make you love me, too, You have got to roll with me Henry, Alright baby, Roll with me Henry, Don´t mean maybe, Roll with me Henry, Any old time, Roll with me Henry, Won´t change my mind, Roll with me Henry, All right, You better roll it while the rolling is on, Roll on, roll on, roll on, While the cats are balling, You better stop your stalling, It's intermission in a minute, So you better get with it, Roll with me, Henry, You better roll it while the rolling is on, Roll on, roll on, roll on…

GROSS: Now, after you recorded this, Georgia Gibbs did a cover recording of this called, "Dance With Me, Henry." And was that supposed to be the tamer version, the..

Ms. JAMES: Yeah, well, you know, during those days you weren't allowed to say roll, because roll was like a vulgar word. You know what I mean…

GROSS: For sex.

Ms. JAMES: Think about it, yeah, think about it, they would probably burn Prince at the stake.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JAMES: But you couldn't say roll so rather than - they banned, they banned my record from the air. And what happened, what we had to do was sell it underground and not only that, change the title to "Wallflower." And then when Georgia Gibbs did it, she just made the "Dance With Me Henry," so that, you know, all the kids could go buy it and, you know, take it home and, you know, listen to it.

DAVIES: Singer Etta James speaking with Terry Gross in 1994. More after a break, this is Fresh Air.

Let's get back to Terry's interview with singer Etta James recorded in 1994. She's portrayed in the new film "Cadillac Records," about the label she recorded with, Chess Records.

GROSS: At some point in your career you started dressing in evening gowns for performances and dying your hair blonde. Tell me how you created that onstage image for yourself.

Ms. JAMES: I think probably by me being so young, and I was oversized like I am now, but I mean, I had a real nice figure and I was tall. And I remember this singer Joyce Bryant. She was a black singer, and I always admired her, and I had two role models I liked. Joyce Bryant, because she wore fishtail gowns, sequined fishtail gowns, and she was black, and she had the nerve to wear platinum hair. And then I also loved Jane Mansfield, because Jane Mansfield had the blonde hair and had like the poochie lips and the mole and all this.

So I think what I did, it was kind of combine - my mother had bleached my hair carrot red at one point, and then I said, well, maybe that's not flamboyant enough. So I just, kind of, went into Detroit one day, and one of the fellows over there said, oh, Ms. James, why you would probably look fabulous with blond platinum hair. So he bleached my hair blonde, and it looked good. And so, then I started - what I was doing was trying to be a glamour girl, because I had been a tomboy most of the time. And I wanted to look grown, you know, I want to wear tall high-heeled shoes, and fishtail gowns, and big long rhinestone earrings, you know.

GROSS: So how long did you dye your hair?

Ms. JAMES: For how long?

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. JAMES: I think, well, most of my career. It was blonde, platinum blonde all the way, I would think, up into the '70s. Maybe the '72 or '73, something like that.

GROSS: Why'd you stop?

Ms. JAMES: Well, you know, I wanted to - I think, one thing about it. I think things had changed. I know things had changed. And my career hadn't - it wasn't happening. And I didn't think that I needed to attract that much attention. Another thing, I was on drugs at that time. And I think I really wanted a low profile.

GROSS: Was it difficult for you to give up drugs?

Ms. JAMES: Not when I got down. You know, I had given it up many a time. You know, I had kicked - I'd kicked my habits many a time. But when I went in 1974, I gave heroin up. I was on methadone for maybe three or four years before that. So I had a couple of things to give up.

GROSS: Was it hard to make a comeback after you started - stopped using?

Ms. JAMES: No. Not really, because when I stopped using, you know, I wasn't the kind that went around and wanted people to pat me on the back about it. I just said, I just picked up, you know, picked up the ball and started running with it. The thing was when I went to this rehabilitation center, while I was in that program, they would take me out - kindness with support, to kind of do little gigs here and there. We went to Africa to do the Black Festival there. We went to the American Song Festival. And so my therapist, you know, psychologist was taking me around, trying to just, you know, dip me in a little bit to let me know, you know, this is the business here that you've been in all your life. Now, what's going to be different about this when you come out? So we would just do test runs and things.

GROSS: In 1978, you opened on some cities for The Rolling Stones on their tour. Were the Stones fans of yours?

Ms. JAMES: Oh, yeah, as a matter of fact when I was in rehab at the same rehab center in the '70s, '74, '75, I got a letter from Keith Richards that had told - that had said to me that they were getting ready to do a tour. You know, that they had had Tina Turner, and they had had B.B. King, and they had different people on their tour. And they had wanted me on their tour. And the letter that they wrote came to the rehabilitation center, and the therapist got the letter, and he called me to his office and read the letter. And the letter said that they - he said, we would like to have you on tour with us. We love your music and he says, but what you're doing right now is more important than what we could ever do with you, but we will be sure to come back and get you when you're ready. And that was really cool. That was when they came back in '78 and kept their word.

GROSS: Etta James, it's been a pleasure. I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

Ms. JAMES: Thank you so much, Terry.

DAVIES: Terry Gross speaking with singer Etta James. In the 1960s, she recorded with the Chicago record label Chess Records which is the subject of the new film, "Cadillac Records."

(Soundbite of acknowledgement)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Let's close with Etta James' 1961 hit single "At Last."

(Soundbite of the song "At Last" by Etta James)

At last, my love has come along. My lonely days are over, And life is like a song, Oh, yeah, at last, The skies above are blue, My heart was wrapped up in clovers, The night I looked at you, I found a dream that I could speak to, A dream that I can call my own, I found a thrill to rest my cheek to, A thrill that I have never known, Oh, yeah when you smile, you smile, Oh, and then…

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