In memory and soulful celebration of the January 25th birthday of the late Etta James (1938-2012), a true musical pioneer, we revisit this interview conducted by Blues & Soul magazine founder, John Abbey in 1974 when the iconic singer was re-emerging into public prominence. We’ve added a video of an amazing 1975 performance of Etta singing her classic “I’d Rather Go Blind”…

The welcome revival in the musical fate of Etta James is highlighted by the release of a fine new album, produced by Gabriel Mekler and Trevor Lawrence, who between them wrote and produced the albums predecessor and the US hit single, “All The Way Down.”

Long standing soul folk will recall that Etta was considered the ‘Queen of Soul’ when Aretha was still singing gospel in a Detroit church and when Diana Ross was still at school.  And this isn’t meant to illustrate that Ms. James is an ancient soul memorial — rather that she started when she was young, awfully young, and has managed to keep her hat in the ring ever since. In fact, she isn’t too proud to tell you that she was born in 1938 on January 25th in Los Angeles and by the time she was fifteen she was singing semi-professionally in little clubs and dives around San Francisco, where she was living at the time.

“I was just a little schoolkid,” she now fondly recalls, “and I was bumming around at being a delinquent! In the evenings, I was singing in some of the local dives and one night Johnny Otis happened by. He asked me to audition for him and I will always remember, I was so bashful that I had to go into the bathroom and sing from there white the other two girls who were singing harmonies for me stayed outside in the main room and sang there! Anyway, he liked my singing and he took me down to Los Angeles and I stayed there living in his house with his wife and children.

“In 1954, he had me record Dance With Me Henry” and at the time I was earning around $ 8 or $ 10 a night singing in LA. clubs. Anyway, the record was a hit and the next year there was “The Wallflower” and “Good Rockin’ Daddy”, both of which were hits, too. Though they later released an album, I really only recorded singles for Modern Records and it was only when I started getting hot with Chess that they put that LP together on Modern.  Looking back, though. I guess it wasn’t bad for a fifteen year old kid. eh? But I never really got my money due me — Johnny gained all the financial advantage from the hits because I wasn’t at the time hip to what money was all about. I guess that I was bitter at the time but not now and looking back, I had never known money before so I ddint really miss not having it at the time. But Johnny went ten years without speaking to me so I always figured he felt pretty bad bout it all!”

In fact, the first album that Etta recorded as such wasn’t until 1960 and by that time she was with Chicago-based Chess Records. “I’d spent the four or five years after Modern touring down south to those funky little joints. I was part of a kinda black entourage that included Harvey Fuqua and the Moonglows and they included Marvin Gaye and one of the current Dells at the time.

“We used to get into Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Alabama and all around there but we ended up in Chicago one day and we were flat broke…couldn’t even afford to pay the hotel bill, we couldn’t. We were doing super, super bad Now Harvey had a gig with Chess Records at the time and thought he was fixing to split from them, he figured he d give them one last favour — and I was that favour! So, they paid the hotel bill and a few other little things and I joined Chess.”

Etta recalls, “They paid over good money to Modern, too, because I was really under contract to them at the time. And I’ve been with Chess ever since — fifteen years almost Leonard Chess was like a father to me; he took care of all my problems and bought me a new Cadillac. And he’d give me a little money every now and then. That was the way it was in those days — as long as you got a little money and a Cadillac, everything was alright. It didn’t matter about all the other monies that were due you, so long as you had your Cadillac and enough money to keep you going. And I guess they were right cause if they’d given me a stack of money, I’d have only gone out and bought me a bunch of lollipops!  But I’ll never forget my first royalty statement from Chess Records — it showed that I owed them $14,000 but I didn’t mind because I had me a Cadillac, didn’t I! But we were really lucky because the first record was a hit. The song was called “All I Could Do Was Cry” and it was written by some unknown folk in Detroit called Berry Gordy, Gwen Gordy and Billy Davis. That was before Motown really got going and the record became my first No. 1 back in the summer of ’60.”

The following decade was truly star-spangled with Etta continually enjoying hits but the spell ended some three years ago. The happy decade included such memorable hits as “At Last’ ‘; “My Dearest Darling”, written by Eddie Bo and Paul Gayten; “Trust In Me”; “Don’t Cry Baby”; “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” which had one of the first Bacharach songs on the flip — “Stop The Wedding”;  Pushover”, which I believe was co-written by Tony Clarke.

Between 1963 and 1967, Etta didn’t have any giant hits but she exploded back again in 67 — by this time the Argo label had been replaced by Cadet and Etta was on the new label — with “I Prefer You”, which really began Phase Three of Etta’s career. The record also brought Etta into professional contact with a new set of Chicago’s more creative folk the team of Monk Higgins and Ralph Bass. Around the same time, Etta did a duet with Sugar Pie De Santo entitled “In The Basement” and that, too, was a major hit.

Later in the same year, Etta travelled south to record an album with Rick Hall and from it came a whole stream of hits beginning with the soul standard, “Tell Mama”, which was co-penned by the then-unknown Clarence Carter Otis Redding’s Security” followed and then came Etta’s updating of “I Got You Babe” and then, the final Rick Hall-produced hit, “Almost Persuaded”, one of the big country hits of the year 1968. ”I think that was my best period until now. I loved the “Tell Mama album.” Etta knowingly explained “I loved the track “I’d Rather Go Blind” and I’m proud to say that I helped write the song I think it summed up my situation at the time, really but we worked really well together. Rick Hall and me. I’ve always preferred to record ballads and Rick, being a country music fan himself also preferred slower material.” In 1970, Etta hit the charts for the last time with the aptly titled “Losers Weepers” which is acknowledged to this day as one of the greatest vocal performances encompassed within the realms of our music. The record wasn’t a gigantic hit but soul folk the world over loved it.

Unfortunately, addiction took control of Etta’s life but she now proudly and justifiably boasts that she has ridden herself of drugs “I was hooked for fifteen years,” she philosophically confesses now, “and on rnethodrine, which is heavy duty stuff. I guess I resorted to it when money got really short and things got really tough. I used to get sick all the time, miss gigs, turn out bad shows and generally got on the wrong track. Like I said, I ended up for the last two years on methodrine and I just fell apart and couldn’t sing, record or anything really.  At first, I liked it, it was for kicks and I did my thing — but then it was just another form of slavery that I thought I was escaping from. And this time it just seemed to get worse But I’m proud to say that I’m away from it and I’ll never be tempted back I’d rather die”

That’s a helluva brave statement to make and one takes pride in seeing a fellow human being climb out from the bottomless pit’ that drugs inevitably brings. To add further justification to it all Etta James has never, ever sounded better: “I’m not the boastful type you know that,” she almost whispers, “but even I can hear my voice is better on this new album. You can hear the quality in the voice and it makes me feel proud. I think I’m singing better than I’ve ever sung in my life. And with Marvin Schlachter at Chess putting so much effort behind me and with the tremendous talents of my producers Gabriel Mekler and Trevor Lawrence, I’m hopeful that I can get back up there.” 

Etta continues, “You see. I love entertaining — it’s the only thing I knew and the realisation of the fact that I might never perform again played a big big part in helping me recover Just last week, I did my first show in years and it’s just about the only professional gig I’ve ever done without being under the influence of something And you wanna know something? I’ve never felt better and people said that I was better than they’d ever seen me before That made me feel proud, too. While I love the entertainment part of it, I’m not a limelight lover. I guess I’m a kind of Jekyl and Hyde character but now I’m determined to get right back to the top.  In the years while I’ve been missing, the business has changed enormously — there are places to go now and there’s a lot that can be achieved One thing I’m really keeping my fingers crossed on is getting the chance to come to Europe and Britain It seems that every artist has made the trip now and I’ve heard so many good things about Europe that I can’t wait to come.”

The success of the classic single” All The Way Down” brought Etta’s name back to the charts last year and now Chess are about to release the main track on the new album as a single. Entitled “Out On The Street Again”, it’s in a similar vein to “All The Way Down” and has that classic Norman Whitfield ‘pictorial’ feel to it.

“The introduction, the musical introduction that is, conjures up a picture in my mind,” Etta relates, “and it’s a picture all too familiar to me. It’s like you can close your eyes and imagine people running out of their doors and getting out on to the streets again and you can sense the sirens of the police cars and the knowing that the junkies and dealers are on the corners. Hey it’s like re-living my past I know that. street “

The album is entitled ‘ Come A Little Bit Closer” and I’ve a feeling that it will enable the elfin-faced Ms. James to realise some of her dreams. It could certainly help her make that long-awaited trip across the Atlantic and it could well end up giving her the elusive monster hit single in “Out On The Street Again” It would, indeed be a well-deserved bonus to someone who has achieved a great deal in the last year or so.

(c) 1974, John Abbey, reprinted with kind permission