Author's note: Out of the blue, a Twin Cities promoter called and asked if I wanted to interview Etta James. Who would turn down a chance to talk with the legendary R&B singer, who granted interviews only when she was in the right mood? "She's calling in five minutes," I was told by the promoter, who was presenting James in concert in St. Paul in a few days. I scrambled to prepare some questions and even continued to do research online as she chatted away. With James passing Friday at age 73, we wanted to revisit that interview published Aug. 19, 2001.
For Etta James, it was a case of not telling Mama, for a change.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame vocal powerhouse -- whose signature song is the reassuring blues number "Tell Mama" -- was going to record a duet with her mother for her new jazz CD, "Blue Gardenia."
"I didn't know she was a singer," said James, who will perform at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul on Thursday, two days after the new CD is released. "But she had been telling me all my life that that's where I got my voice from. So finally -- she's 75 -- because she likes jazz so well, we were going to do a duet."
It was the title tune. "I knew that I didn't know that song as well as she did. I said, 'I'm just gonna let her do this.' She did a good job."
James, 63, didn't get along all that well with her teenage mother, Dorothy Leatherwood, while growing up, as she explained in her 1995 autobiography "Rage to Survive." In fact, they didn't spend that much time together during Etta's youth.
James never knew her dad; she didn't even meet him until eight or 10 years ago. At least, she thinks it was her dad. His name was Rudolph Wanderone Jr., but he was better known as the pool shark Minnesota Fats. They met at a Nashville hotel where he was living.
"We just talked about some places and some people who knew him during those times -- my mother and these movie stars she used to hang out with after-hours in this club in Los Angeles," she said.
Did he acknowledge being her birth father?
"He never denied it and just about admitted it," she said. "And when he died [in 1996], his very close friend sent me this gold pocket watch on a chain. And he sent me a letter along with it. So I took it for granted. If it's true, it's wonderful." If it's not true, she's still "really glad" about meeting him.
Her boys in the band
James keeps in close contact with her own sons, Donto and Sametto, who play drums and bass, respectively, in her touring band. Working together, however, bothers Mom from time to time.
"Sometimes they'll ask me to sing certain songs I don't want to sing," she said from her Los Angeles home. "They like me to sing 'You Can Leave Your Hat On.' It's a suggestive song. I still like to sing it, but sometimes your sons get on your nerves. In the back of your head you hear, 'Hey Mom, do "Leave Your Hat On." ' The boys are just getting to know Randy Newman, who wrote that song. They also like Janis Joplin's 'Piece of My Heart' -- the older stuff," said James.
Now that her sons are on the road with her, James has toned down the legendary bawdiness of her stage act, which covers blues, R&B, jazz and country. "I'm not as suggestive as I used to be," she said. "As you grow older, I've learned you can be suggestive in song without being physical."
James thinks some of today's younger singers step over the line. "When people started calling singers 'divas,' they took it the wrong way. They're wearing thongs and they're showing navels. This Mexican girl [Jennifer] Lopez, she's a beautiful girl, and she can wear just about anything. But some of these people I see, that's the only way they're getting over. They're getting over through sex and hip-hop. If you ask them to sing a song, I don't know if they're qualified to do that."
First hit at 15
Jamesetta Hawkins spent her youth in churches as well as in L.A. blues and jazz clubs. Her mother was obsessed with Billie Holiday, but she liked gutbucket blues.
Jamesetta formed the Creolettes with two other girls from the housing projects. When the trio was singing at a record hop, Hank Ballard & the Midnights performed their hit "Work with Me, Annie." The next day, 15-year-old Jamesetta wrote an answer called "Roll with Me, Henry." A few weeks later, R&B star Johnny Otis auditioned Etta in a hotel bathroom and took her to make a recording of that song. When the single was pressed, her name was accidentally transposed as Etta James, and she became an R&B star herself, one who has since accrued more than a dozen Top 10 hits.
Her most famous may be "At Last," which she first recorded in 1960. It has been used in the movies "The Wedding" and "Rain Man." Her other vintage hits include "Tell Mama," which Joplin later covered, and "I'd Rather Go Blind."
After drug problems that kept her from recording for almos a decade, she made a splashy comeback in 1988 with "Seven Year Itch." Since then, she has recorded steadily, winning a jazz Grammy for 1994's "Mystery Lady" and a W.C. Handy Blues Award for best female vocalist that same year. In 1993, she was inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame.
After doing a series of blues and R&B discs including last year's "Matriarch of the Blues" -- which her sons produced -- James said RCA Records suggested that she record another jazz album. Hence "Blue Gardenia," which features songs associated with Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday as well as the standards "Love Letters," "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "He's Funny That Way."
Eyes country album
The singer said RCA officials have been pushing for her to do a benefit performance or a record with pop star Christina Aguilera, a labelmate who does a version of "At Last" in concert.
"I've never heard her sing it," James said. "I only heard her being asked one time on a television show about 'At Last,' and she said I was one of her favorite singers. I don't see what singing with her would do. I don't see what it would do for me -- or for her. We don't sound alike. We don't sing the same kind of songs. I think she's a nice little girl. She's young, she's got a promising career."
James pays attention to the scene by watching music award shows and music-video channels. She likes Alicia Keys because she plays piano. She likes Jill Scott's jazzy uptown R&B and Mary J. Blige's singing prowess. She likes country star Lee Ann Womack, who also does "At Last" in concert. James has her eye on a song Womack just turned into a country hit, Rodney Crowell's "Ashes by Now."
"Whoever's going to do a song, they can go ahead and do it. That's not going to stop me from doing it. They do it their way and I do it my way," James said. "I've done 'At Last' three or four times. Other people do 'At Last.' My 'At Last' is like the original.
"I like country music. That's one of my ambitions -- to do a country album. I'd love to do some George Jones stuff, Vince Gill stuff, some Randy Travis.
"I don't care about how the music sounds. I'm looking for that story, that great story that'll make you cry or make you laugh or make you go back to your lover or quit your lover."