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Etta James on Billie Holiday: Women Who Rock

'With Billie, I did delve into so much of what went on with her. And I really loved the way she put a song over'

October 30, 2003
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

I grew up listening to my mother. I remember her getting ready at night to go to work at the bar, and all she would play was Billie Holiday. She would just hum along with Billie Holiday. I knew those songs that she was singing, but I noticed how she would sing them. She would sing them different than Billie Holiday would sing them. She would put different little runs in them. I couldn't wait for her to leave so I could put on the hi-fi and listen to Billie Holiday sing. I would say, "My mama's not singing that right." But then I understood what she was doing. She was doing it her way.

A few years ago, I recorded a tribute album to Billie Holiday called Mystery Lady. Well, I didn't want to say it, but Mystery Lady was my mother. Now women talk about me inspiring them. Janis Joplin told me I inspired her. I went into a rehabilitation center in 1970, I think it was. I remember one night we were sitting there in this studio that wasn't far from the rehabilitation center, and there was this lady sitting there in the corner, and she had this big, puffy coat on, and she had this funny-looking hat on. I said to my keyboard player, "I thought we had a closed session." And he says, "Do you know who that is?" And I said, "No, I don't." He said, "That's Janis Joplin." Well, I had heard the name, but I didn't know that she was as big as she was.

She said, "Excuse me, I don't mean to be interrupting. I just love your singing. And I just wanted to come here and to sit in on your session." She says, "You don't remember me, do you?" And I said, "No, I don't." She said we used to play at a place in Oklahoma called the Big Tin Ballroom. She said, "You would go there in the afternoon around two o'clock, and you would do your sound check." I remembered there was a little white girl that used to come in through the back way, and she would sit on the side of the stage. She said, "I love you," you know, that kind of thing. And I still was kind of arrogant about it. I said, "Oh, yeah? Well, no, I don't remember you, but I guess it's cool and everything." I saw her again at the place called the Lingerie Club in Hollywood. I was in the balcony, and I said, "Oh, that girl could really sing. She can sing the blues." That was my second time seeing her. I think shortly after that she died.

Goodbye, Janis Joplin

Some survive themselves, some don't. Like with Billie, I did delve into so much of what went on with her. And I really loved the way she put a song over. I just felt that there was so much hurt and so much stuff inside of her that she really wasn't still getting it all out. I don't think she got everything out that she needed to get out. And I think that's what happens to singers who don't get out what they need to get out of them, you know. They just sit there and hold it in and talk about the moon and the stars, and that's not really where we're supposed to be. We're not talking about the moon and the stars. We're talking about a relationship. We're talking about somebody who has beat us. We're talking about somebody who loved us — as at least we thought they did. And that's what I've always tried to do. I was going to make sure that I was going to sing with feeling so that when people heard it they could get chills on their neck.

This story is from the October 30th, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone.

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