Etta James Sang Her Hurt Instead of Suppressing It

Etta James
Etta James rehearses at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., 1967. Photo: House of Fame LLC/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Etta James’ autobiography is entitled Rage to Survive. It’s a header that clearly describes her tumultuous life—wrought with abuse, abandonment, and addiction—but it’s also apt for her voice: all that passion, desperation, and perseverance found itself in her deep, throaty rolls, uncontainable in their omnipresence. On her ballads you sometimes thought she would cry. She turned “A Sunday Kind of Love” into her own song, despite a storied history with versions by Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington, simply by the way she turned the phrase, “I’m hoping to discover/ A certain kind of lover/ Who will show me the way.” Her husky voice cracked the high trill out the park and you knew she not only hoped for it, meant it, but also needed it.

Even heavier: “I’d Rather Go Blind” roils with the pain of seeing a lover with another, but also seethes with sexual longing, the kind that singers like James and other women of the ‘60s spoke through allusion and allegory, helping clear the way for liberation. “I’m not sure of the true definition of a feminist but I count myself as one,” she wrote in Rage to Survive. “To me it means that women won’t take no more second-class-citizenship shit. I like the demanding side of being a feminist, because if you don’t demand, you don’t get.” One of her early hits, 1961’s humpy rock blueprint “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” was written by Willie Dixon for Muddy Waters, but on her first-ever Chess Records session, James transformed it into vampy feminine desire, her craggy swagger coming straight from the pelvis. Lyrically, the song ostensibly begged for it --- Etta James demanded it. (The Chess-worshiping Rolling Stones recorded a version of it not much later; by 1978, James was opening for the Stones on tour which, while probably lucrative, seems like an injustice.)

Survival is the prevailing part of the Etta James story, and something worth thinking about next time the tabloid media tries to turn another tragic hot mess of a singer into page-views fodder. (Even as an agnostic, I help but think about James and Amy Winehouse, who clearly worshiped her, kicking it in heaven.) Born Jamesetta Hawkins of Los Angeles, California in 1938, James was rechristened by Johnny Otis, whom she met at 14, the same age her mother gave birth to her. She didn’t know who her father was and had abusive caregivers, which led to a nasty drug habit—the hard stuff, plus pills and psychedelics, among other stuff. In Rage, after describing herself as a “street junkie,” she recalls a time in rehab at Tarzana around ‘73 when her therapist told her, “There’s so much hurt that’s been covered up by heroin.” In her music, it’s hard to believe she was suppressing it. Even on songs from that era, like hard funk track “Out on the Streets Again,” her exasperation and need peeling through her husky voice. She’d struggled with addiction her whole life, a band-aid on the past, even up to the very end. But the music was redemption, and she will be remembered not as a woman with problems, but as one of the greatest American singers ever to emerge.