It's fitting that Etta James is playing Memphis on the Fourth of July. After all, the defiant diva has lived a life defined by independence for 64 years. Songs like "W-O-M-A-N" spell out a lifetime of rebellion, while her autobiography, Rage To Survive, co-authored by David Ritz, tells it like it is: "I wanted to be exotic as a Cotton Club chorus girl, and as obvious as the most flamboyant hooker on the street. I just wanted to be."
Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, James learned independence from the very beginning. Her mother, Dorothy Hawkins, a small-time hustler who left her baby with friends and relatives for months at a time, was just 14 when Etta was born. The whereabouts of her daddy was another mystery. While Dorothy named a handful of men who may or may not have impregnated her, James maintains that pool shark Minnesota Fats -- whom she never knew -- was her real father.
Living with cousins in suburban L.A., young James was introduced to music at the St. Paul Baptist Church, where she heard Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Sallie Martin Singers belt out hymns. She joined the Echoes of Eden choir before she turned 10, schooled by gospel singer Professor James Earle Hines, who was impressed with the pint-sized talent. "Don't back off those notes, Jamesetta," he'd tell her. "Attack 'em, grab 'em, claim those suckers. Sing 'em like you own 'em!"
It was advice she never forgot. At just 14, James auditioned for R&B impresario Johnny Otis with her group the Creolettes. Impressed by the youngster's deep, husky voice, Otis took her under his wing. The first thing he did was change her name from Jamesetta Hawkins to Etta James. Next, he took her into the studio on Thanksgiving Eve 1953, where she recorded "Roll With Me, Henry" for Modern Records. The song was an instant smash, and James quit school halfway through the ninth grade to go on the road. She was a precocious child -- and extremely wild. "I was no Suzy Creamcheese," she recalls in Rage To Survive. "I was serious about turning little churchgoing Jamesetta into a tough bitch called Etta James."
With her platinum-blond hair, smooth, coffee complexion, and hourglass figure, James commanded attention wherever she went. She literally poured herself into her stage outfits, store-bought dresses that she tailored to her voluptuous frame. Men were captivated by the sassy young woman with the sensual voice, but most fellow musicians saw her as one of the boys.
Songwriter Richard Berry, vocalist Jessie Belvin, and guitarist Little John Watson (who launched a second career as Johnny "Guitar" Watson in the '70s) befriended James and did what they could to help her. Berry wrote her second hit, "Good Rockin' Daddy," in '55, and Belvin provided backing vocals on the number. Watson encouraged her to move to Chicago's blues-oriented Chess label in 1960.
At Chess, James modeled her delivery after the greats -- Lowell Fulson, Amos Milburn, and Ray Charles. The self-penned "All I Could Do Was Cry" was her first hit for the label. Other tunes, including the luscious "At Last," "Something's Got a Hold On Me," and the tremendous "I'd Rather Go Blind," solidified it: Etta James was a bona-fide soul superstar.
But trouble was on the way. James' don't-mess-with-me attitude caused problems first, a recklessness that soon led to a serious drug habit.
"More than booze or weed or cocaine, heroin hit me hard," James admitted in her book. "I loved it. It took me where I wanted to go -- far away, out of it -- and in a hurry. The danger was thrilling." Drugs provided a bond for James and her men friends, and they helped keep her weight under control.
Boyfriends were another problem. She associated with pimps and drug dealers who used her fame and wealth to further their own shady careers. James was often beaten and mentally abused, but she acknowledges that "it was just how it went" in those days. Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin often worked with her on the road, and they were also subjected to similar mistreatment from their abusive husbands. "We were all going through hell with men, but never talked about it," James wrote. "If there was an understanding, it was silent, hidden in a secret part of ourselves we were too scared to look at."
James couldn't hold her world together under so much strain, and it eventually came crashing down around her. In 1964, she was sent to New York's prison at Riker's Island for passing bad checks. Four months on the 13th floor of Chicago's Cook County Jail came next. Leonard Chess sent her to a clinic in California to clean up her act. It was just in time -- James contracted tetanus from a dirty needle and barely survived the experience. Down to 148 pounds, and with her hair newly bleached, she returned to New York a new woman. She started snorting heroin again a day later.
In 1969, she was back in prison. She spent her 35th birthday there and didn't clean up until giving birth to her son Donto soon after. Another family-inspired career turning point came in 1993, when James reconciled with her mother. Her Mystery Lady album, released a year later, was dedicated to Dorothy -- and it netted James her first Grammy.
These days, James' career is going stronger than ever, as her latest release, Burnin' Down the House, attests. Captured live at a December 2001 House of Blues performance, James rocks her way through a dozen numbers, including the tearjerker "I'd Rather Go Blind" and a punchy, passionate take on "All the Way Down."
"At Last," James' biggest hit, is hands down the highlight of Burnin' Down the House and a standard she's sure to perform during her rare Memphis performance at the Lounge. The song, a deceptively simple ballad, would be a fitting finale for a night filled with fireworks. "At last," James sings with an earthy conviction born from years of pain, "My love has come along/My lonely days are over/And life is like a song."
Few musical moments sound so free.