Saturday, February 23, 2013

Jamesetta sang the blues

originally posted 1/20/12
re-running for black history month

Artists tend to be worth more after they pass on.

Born Jamesetta Hawkins, her African American mother was 14 at Etta James' birth. Etta was told that her father was a white
man, named Rudolf Wanderone. 

Wanderone is "Minnesota Fats", a pool player exemplar. In their only meeting, Fats told James he didn't know where he was at the time of her conception, but he had no clear recollection of her mother, Dorothy Hawkins. Maybe he didn't want to fess up to statutory rape? As to whether Wanderone and James are father and daughter remains a mystery.

Due to her mother being often absent carrying on relationships with various men, James lived with a series of caregivers, most notably "Sarge" and "Mama" Lu. James called her mother "the Mystery Lady".


James received her first professional vocal training at the age of five from James Earle Hines, musical director of the Echoes of Eden choir, at the St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles. She became a popular singing attraction at the church, and Sarge tried to pressure the church into paying him money for her singing, but they refused. During drunken poker games at home, he would wake James up in the early hours of the morning and force her through beatings to sing for his friends. As she was a bed-wetter, and often soaked with her own urine on these occasions, the trauma of being forced to sing meant she had a life-long reluctance to sing on demand.

In 1950 Mama Lu died, and James' real mother took her to the Fillmore district in San Francisco. Within a couple of years, James began listening to doo-wop and was inspired to form a girl group, called the Creolettes (due to the members' light skinned complexions). The 14-year-old girls met musician Johnny Otis. James had her first hit single when she was 15 years of age and went steady with B.B. King when she was 16. Etta James believed the hit single "Sweet Sixteen" by B.B. King was about her.

James encountered a string of legal problems during the early 1970s due to her heroin addiction. She was continuously in and out of rehabilitation centers, including the Tarzana Rehabilitation Center, in Los Angeles, California. Her husband Artis Mills, whom she married in 1969, accepted responsibility when they were both arrested for heroin possession and served a 10-year prison sentence. He was released from prison in 1982 and was still married to James at her death. She was also arrested around the same time for her drug addiction, accused of cashing bad checks, forgery and possession of heroin. In 1974, James was sentenced to drug treatment instead of serving time in prison. She was in the Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital for 17 months, at age 36, and went through a great struggle at the start of treatment. She later stated in her autobiography that the time she spent in the hospital changed her life. However, after leaving treatment, her substance abuse continued into the 1980s, after she developed a relationship with a man who was also using drugs. In 1988, at the age of 50, she entered the Betty Ford Center, in Palm Springs, California, for treatment. In 2010, she received treatment for a dependency on painkillers.


From 1989, James received over 30 awards and recognitions from eight different organizations, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences which organizes the Grammys.
In 1989, the newly formed Rhythm and Blues Foundation included James in their first Pioneer Awards for artists whose "lifelong contributions have been instrumental in the development of Rhythm & Blues music". The following year, 1990, she received an NAACP Image Award, which is given for "outstanding achievements and performances of people of color in the arts"; an award she cherished as it "was coming from my own people".

  • 1993, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
  • 2001, Rockabilly Hall of Fame
  • 2003, Hollywood Chamber of Commerce Hollywood Walk of Fame, star at 7080 Hollywood Blvd, and Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) Lifetime Achievement Award
  • 2006, Billboard R&B Founders Award


James  received six Grammy Awards. Her first was in 1994, when she was awarded Best Jazz Vocal Performance for the album Mystery Lady, which consisted of covers of Billie Holiday songs. Two other albums have also won awards, Let's Roll (Best Contemporary Blues Album) in 2003, and Blues To The Bone (Best Traditional Blues Album) in 2004. Two of her early songs have been given Grammy Hall of Fame Awards for "qualitative or historical significance": "At Last", in 1999, and "The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry)" in 2008. In 2003, she was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

The life of Etta is one long string of addictions and dysfunctions. Despite her weaknesses, her voice, her music, her aplomb and her style make her immortal. 



Rest in Peace Etta
 dedicated to the Captain of my heart

No comments:

Post a Comment