Remembrances
10:54 am
Fri January 20, 2012

Etta James: The 1994 Fresh Air Interview

Originally published on Fri January 27, 2012 9:54 am

Etta James, the legendary vocalist who is perhaps best known for her version of the song "At Last," has died. She was 73.

In 1994, James joined Fresh Air's Terry Gross for a conversation about her life and her lengthy career in the music business. James explained that she got her big break at 16 when her doo-wop group auditioned for the late Johnny Otis one night in San Francisco. Otis liked their singing and invited James and her two friends to Los Angeles to make a record.

"But I knew my mother wasn't going to let me go," James said. "And he said, 'Can I speak with your mother?' I said, 'No, I can't find her right now. She's working.' And he said, 'Well, can you go home and get permission from your mother, get something in writing stating that you can travel and have her 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."

James went to Los Angeles, where she recorded "Roll With Me, Henry" and began performing in Otis' traveling R&B revue. In 1960, she began recording with Chess. Her hits there included "All I Can Do Is Cry," "Trust in Me," Something's Got a Hold on Me" and "At Last."

During the mid-1960s, James began battling a drug addiction that would last for more than a decade. She drifted in and out of rehabilitation centers in Los Angeles.

"While I was in that program, they would take me out to kind of do little gigs here and there," James said. "We went to Africa to do the Black Festival there. We went to the American Song Festival. And so my therapist 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."

When she left rehab, James recorded several more albums and opened for the 1978 Rolling Stones World Tour. She says the band had initially approached her several years earlier.

"When I was in rehab at the same rehab center in the '70s, '74, '75, I got a letter from Keith Richards that had said that they were getting ready to do a tour," James said. "And the letter said, 'We would like to have you on tour with us. We love your music, but what you're doing right now is more important than what we could ever do with you, [and] 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."

Etta James was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. She is also the recipient of an NAACP Image Award and multiple honors from the Blues Foundation.


Interview Highlights

On her mother, who gave birth to Etta at age 14

"She was a kid, and 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 [foster] 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?"

On her famous platinum blond hair in the 1960s

"I had a real nice figure and I was tall. And I remember this singer Joyce Bryant. ... 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 Jayne Mansfield, because Jayne Mansfield had the blond hair and had like the poochie lips and the mole and all this. So I think what I did, it was kind of combine [them]. ... I wanted to look grown, you know; I wanted to wear tall high-heeled shoes, and fishtail gowns, and big, long rhinestone earrings."

On giving up drugs

"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."

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT LAST")

ETTA JAMES: (Singing) At last, my love has come along. My lonely days are over, and life is like a song. Oh-oh, yeah, yeah. At last...

DAVIES: Etta James, rhythm and blues and pop vocalist, died last week due to complications from leukemia. She was 73. James started recording at the age of 15 and had her first hit when she was just 17. She became an established R&B vocalist, but also had successful pop hits, including her best known, "At Last," recorded in 1961.

John Pareles of The New York Times wrote in 1990 that she had one of the great voices in American popular music, with a huge range, a multiplicity of tones and vast reserves of volume.

Etta James had an erratic career as tastes in popular music evolved, and she battled heroin and cocaine addictions. But she won four Grammy Awards, and is in both the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame. Terry spoke with Etta James in 1994.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

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

JAMES: 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?

JAMES: They were lovely. They were older people, and they had property and they lived in the east side, the 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.

GROSS: When you were singing in the church choir, did your grandmother or anyone else in the family get upset if, on your own time, you sang blues or any kind of secular music?

JAMES: No. Because as long as - my grandmother lived until I was - my grandmother died when I was 12. So I sang gospel music from five until 12. And so my grandmother, she never - she wasn't one of those kind of people, because I was already the prodigy child of the church and, you know, and I did nothing - but then I love church. I went to Bible camp, and I was a little Christian girl.

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 grandmother - 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 - at - 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 and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: ...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?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But...

JAMES: 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. And I want to play "Something's Got a Hold on Me" from 1961. Do you think of this is having a gospel sound?

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 must be love.

JAMES: It must be love.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: Right. Right. Now, don't get me, because I'm not that one who decided to, but I was one of the writers. I just kind of said, OK, well let's go, rock and roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: This is Etta James, recorded in 1961.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING'S GOT A HOLD ON ME")

JAMES: (Singing) Oh, sometimes I get a good feeling, yeah. Yeah. I get a feeling that I never, never, never had before, no, no. Yeah. I just want to tell you right now that, ooh, 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. Oh. Oh. Oh. Hey, hey, yeah. Oh, it must be love. You know it must be love. Let me tell you...

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

JAMES: Well, he really found me, because at that time, 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. We had wrote an answer to the song "Work with Me Annie."

GROSS: The Hank Ballard record.

JAMES: Right. So during those days, you know, everybody would make an answer. You said, "Work with Me Annie," then we say "Roll with Me Henry." And so one night, the young girl and myself, there 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 says yeah, Johnny Otis, I told him that we have a girl group, and he says he wants to hear us. And I said yeah, right. And she says, oh, he's at the hotel there, and all the band and everything. And we look - myself and the girl, we looked at each other and said, yeah, right. Now, we're 15-year-olds and we're going to go to the hotel with the band and Johnny Otis?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: Johnny Otis was like about a 34, 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 you doing? And we said oh, oh, we're doing all right. 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's going to bother you. We says, OK. So we got up and got dressed, got the cab and 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 - he looked like a tall, kind of like a Creole man with a nice mustache and a beard and he had, you know, and the nice pompadour hair. And when we got there, he says oh, I'm glad to see you, and come on up and 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."

GROSS: So you auditioned for Johnny Otis. He liked your singing, I suppose...

JAMES: Right.

GROSS: ...and invited you to go on the tour. But you were still a minor. Did he have to get your mother's permission?

JAMES: Well, that was a 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 you're allowed to travel 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh, I see. Right.

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 after going on the road with Johnny Otis? And it's "Roll with Me Henry," also called "WallFlower."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: Been called "Dance with Me, Henry."

DAVIES: Yeah, called "Dance with Me, Henry," also. And this is Etta James.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SONG "ROLL WITH ME HENRY")

RICHARD BERRY: (Singing) Hey, baby. What do I have to do, to make you love me, too?

JAMES: You got to roll with me, Henry.

BERRY: All right, baby.

JAMES: Roll with me, Henry.

BERRY: Don't mean maybe.

JAMES: Roll with me, Henry.

BERRY: Any old time.

JAMES: Roll with me, Henry.

BERRY: Won't change my mind.

JAMES: Roll with me, Henry.

BERRY: All right.

JAMES: 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."

JAMES: Right.

GROSS: And was that supposed to be the tamer version, the...

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. Yeah.

JAMES: Think about it. Yeah. Think about it. They would probably burn Prince at the stake.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: But you couldn't say roll. So rather than - they banned - they banned my record from the air. 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. Because their parents weren't going to go for know roll. Are you kidding? Roll with me? How do you roll with somebody?

DAVIES: Etta James, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1994. James died last week at the age of 73. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with Etta James, who died last week. They spoke in 1994, after James released the album "Mystery Lady," which paid tribute to the great jazz singer Billie Holiday and won James the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance.

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.

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 the, like, the poochie lips and the mole and all this.

So I think what I did, it was kind of combined - my mother had bleached my hair carrot red at one point. And then I said, well, maybe that's not flamboyant enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: So I just kind of went into Detroit one day, and one of the fellas over there said, oh, Ms. James. Why, you would probably look fabulous with platinum hair. So he bleached my hair blonde, and it looked good. And what I was doing was trying to be a glamour girl, because I'd been a tomboy most of the time. And I wanted to look grown, you know, I want to wear tall, high-heel shoes and fishtail gowns, and big, long rhinestone earrings, you know.

GROSS: So how long did you dye your hair?

JAMES: For how long?

GROSS: Yeah.

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?

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

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

JAMES: Not when I got down to - you know, I had given it up many a time.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

JAMES: You know, I'd kicked my habits many a time. But when I went in 1974, I gave heroin up. I was on methadone 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 it?

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. It's just that I just picked up the ball and starting running with it. The thing was when I went to this rehabilitation center I was around nothing but a lot of white kids and the thing where they were all younger than I was. And I remember on Saturdays they would play all these great rock n' roll records.

The thing was, I was doing R&B, remember, but the ZZ Tops and the Rod Stewarts and the Rolling Stones and all those people, I never really - I was busy using drugs, I wasn't there when Woodstock - I was there in New York when Woodstock was going on but I didn't want to go to Woodstock. I would rather go to Harlem, you know?

And when I was on the program on Saturdays we'd be cleaning up, they would be playing songs from all these people and I would say, ooh, man, that music is really happening. And then what really made me think it is because my song "I'd Rather Go Blind," they had a version of it by Rod Stewart. And they kept saying hey, this is the song you wrote. Listen. And I said all right.

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

JAMES: Oh, yeah. Yeah. As a matter of fact, when I was in rehab at the same rehab center in the '70s, '74 or '75, I got a letter from Keith Richards 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 BB King and they had 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'll 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: I'd like to close our interview with another selection from your new album of songs that were recorded by Billie Holiday. I thought we could play "How Deep Is The Ocean" since this is one of the songs you sang many years ago when you auditioned for Johnny Otis. What do you think is the difference between what the song means to you now and what it meant to you then? And how you sing it now and how you sung it then.

JAMES: Probably it's because now I really understand, you know what I mean? I understand what I'm singing about. You know, songs that I get, any song that I decide to sing or a song that someone sends to me or recommends, I like to be able to relate to that song. Not just, you know, have a song there that talks about come fly me to the moon, let me dangle on the stars. That's not my cup of tea.

That's not real. I want to sing real stuff. I want to know what I'm singing about and I want to be able to really relate to that and I think that's what I can do now. I think that's what I definitely do. Matter of fact, I know I do.

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

JAMES: Thank you so much, Terry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN")

JAMES: (Singing) How much do I love you? I'll tell you no lie. How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky? How many times a day do I think of you? How many roses are sprinkled with dew? Ooh, how far would I travel to be where you are? How far is the journey from here to a star? And if I'd ever lost you, how much would I cry? How is the ocean? Baby, how high is the sky?

DAVIES: Etta James. Terry spoke with her in 1994. James died last week at the age of 73. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new HBO series "Luck" starring Dustin Hoffman. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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