It is a rough day for the rhythm, a bad day for the blues when the 73-year-old Etta James and 90(!)-year-old Johnny Otis die within 48 hours of each other. Still, like the internal logic that imbues all good songs, it figures, since Otis, avatar of “Willie and the Hand Jive,” discovered the then-14 year-old Jamesetta Hawkins in a San Francisco hotel room more than 60 years ago. A man with an eye for a hot mama ready to rip it up, it didn’t take Otis but a minute to put Etta on the road with his “Hand Jive” revue, singing kind of dirty songs like “Roll With Me, Henry,” which was changed to “Dance With Me, Henry” to get it on the radio.
Maybe it was that taste for the netherworld clubland that kept Etta James from crossing over to the mass market despite possessing a set of pipes to power a whole Rust Belt city. (Otis always went his own way, played a million one-night stands, and often recorded under the name Snatch and the Poontangs.) She wasn’t churchy like Aretha, she wasn’t silky like Sarah Vaughn, she wasn’t skinny like Diana Ross, but of all the great female R&B singers to come of age after the rise of rock and roll, Etta James was the most street. She shot dope, got arrested for writing bad checks and forging scripts, claimed to be pool player Minnesota Fats’ illegitimate daughter, and blew up to 400 pounds. Plus, she scared the shit out of you. There were few forces on earth to put the fear of God into a young boy surreptitiously listening to a transistor radio after bedtime than Etta James roaring, “Tell Mama … all about it!”
It is probably typical that after six decades of cutting any number of truly great R&B tracks (name a better song than “I’d Rather Go Blind,” “I Prefer You,” or even her eternally cool cover of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You”), James got her only wide-scale press for vowing to kick Beyoncé’s ass. This occurred in the wake of the contemporary star’s rendition of James’s signature song, “At Last,” at President Obama’s inaugural ball. Even though Beyoncé had done a more than credible job portraying the young Etta in the underrated film Cadillac Records, James didn’t care for her hogging the presidential limelight. During a Seattle concert, already afflicted with the leukemia that would kill her, James told a crowd of people, “You know your president … the one with the big ears? I’ll tell you, that woman he has singing for him, singing my song, she gonna get her ass whipped. The great Beyoncé! … I can’t stand Beyoncé! Don’t be singing my song, that I been singing forever.” Later it was announced that James was only joking. But you knew that was a lie.