Somebody’s stomped on your heart and you’re crying mad: That’s the torn-asunder sound of soul queen Etta James. Born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938, James was raised in South Central Los Angeles and San Francisco. While still a teenager, she was discovered by the legendary R&B bandleader Johnny Otis, with whom she wrote her first single, “The Wallflower” (a k a “Roll With Me, Henry”), a before-its-time “answer” record (think pre-Roxanne Shanté). After touring with Otis’ revue in the ’50s, James went on to have numerous Top 10 R&B singles for Chess Records in the ’60s – both plaintive, string-laden ballads and up-tempo scorchers, most notably the gruff but compassionate 1968 hit “Tell Mama.” Hard living, including a long battle with heroin addiction, slowed James’ career, but she resurfaced in 1988 with the impressively funky “Seven Year Itch.” Since then, James has continued to record and tour – her bold, butt-wagging live shows (with her two sons playing in her backup band) are the stuff of legend. Her 1994 album, “Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday,” won James her first Grammy, and she moved toward a country sound with this year’s “Love’s Been Rough on Me.”
So which has been rougher on you, love or life?
I think life has. Life’s been rough, but life’s been good. If I had to go back and do it all over again, I would live it the exact same way.
Your early vocals are so ballsy. Has anyone ever told you to be more ladylike?
I’ve had people say to me, “Can’t you be more feminine?” And I would go, “Feminine? Why do I have to be feminine?” Does that mean I have to put a bonnet on my head and a little apron on and bake some cookies or something? People think that tough thing I do is an act. No, that’s the way I am and the way I like to be.
Were your early influences more male or female?
When I first started singing in church as a kid, I liked the way the men sang. They were real powerful, the way they would make a statement and hit the podium and walk away, you know? And people would just scream. In junior high, I sang with the glee club, and I started getting kinda wimpy-poo. Then I got on the road with Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and I loved the way he sang. I don’t think I really had an identity then, just a voice. Johnny and Ray Charles, too – they influenced me.
I’ve got to ask about the cover for 1963’s “Rocks the House.” You’ve got this white sequined dress on and your cat-eye makeup, and then you’ve got an Ace bandage around your wrist.
That picture was taken when I was a junkie, and I would put the Ace bandage on to cover up my tracks.
I thought you’d popped somebody.
I was about mean enough at that time!
Did you get forced to dress or look a certain way back then?
I sang for a while with two women. We called ourselves the Peaches, and one of us was the woman woman, one was the girly girl, and I was the tomboy. We’d wear those gowns with the fish-tail things and try to be all “ooh wap doo.” This was even before the Supremes.
What women in music do you like nowadays?
I like the ones that are strong. For instance, if I was to pick between Mary J. Blige and Toni Braxton, I’d pick Mary J. Blige, not just because she’s a better singer, but Toni Braxton is too [makes phony, cooing noises]. Maybe I’m just jealous of her figure, I don’t know.
You used to run around with drag queens early on, right?
Yup, yup. When I was about 17 or 18, my dressmaker and my hairdresser were both gay. We’d all sleep together in the same bed when we were on the road. I remember we got busted one time in Indianapolis, because you weren’t allowed to room with the opposite sex if you weren’t married. There we were, doing our nails and stuff, and the police came bursting in. My boys went, “Oh, Miss James, we knew we was gonna end up goin’ to jail with you sooner or later, darlin’.”
You still grind away up there onstage. Does anyone ever give you a hard time about it?
My youngest son hates it. He’s always saying, “Ma, you look like La Wanda!” You know, the one that used to be on Sanford and Son with Redd Foxx? And one time this girl comes up to me in San Francisco – she was very bourgeois – and she says, “You know, Etta, you really have a great voice, but you need to stop doing that stuff you do onstage.” It shocked me so. Basically, I do it for three reasons. One is, I’m like a clown coming out of the closet, and when I get out, I’m gonna be bad. I’m gonna be a bad little girl. Then, I’m being funny. And, finally, I’m being sexy. Maybe people think I’m obnoxious and I should just calm down now that I’m almost 60. But I’m showing you that I’m a big woman and I can do what the hell I want to do.
You’ve said you were a feminist before you knew what the word meant.
Yeah. When I found out about the feminists, the women that were for women, I felt real connected to that. Women in this business have to take care of themselves, make their own living and be their own boss. I’m just happy that women are where they are today, where they can say, “No, man, that ain’t what I want.”
Did you have much say in how things went early on?
Oh, no. I didn’t even get to hire my own musicians until the ’70s. Before that I was getting the guys that were left over from James Brown‘s band, and they were so browbeaten you weren’t going to tell them nothing. When I got out of rehab, I started working with a bunch of white musicians. They were hippies, and they all knew who I was and respected me. They more or less helped me learn how to be independent.
Do you get to call the shots in your career now?
Well . . . I’d been dying to make a country record. I love the women in country – Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells – and I wanted to be the first black woman to do the Grand Ole Opry, if just to say it’s the same fucking thing as rhythm & blues! So I did Love’s Been Rough on Me with Barry Beckett [James’ longtime producer], and when it was done, the label heard it and said, “You gotta pizazz this up or it won’t get played. [Growls] Needs some of that ass-kicking shit.” Uh, OK. So they put all these horns on it and remixed it. Even the cover photo – they wouldn’t use the one I wanted. That record has nothing to do with me – looking like some old woman with a leopard scarf around my neck, getting ready to go make some spaghetti!
But I wasn’t gonna fight it, ’cause I wasn’t gonna win. Nowadays, when you get past 35, it seems like you can’t get a record going. I never hear my stuff played on the air, unless it’s an oldies station and somebody goes [mock DJ voice], “Now we’re gonna go waaaay back.” But I’ll make that country record yet. I’ll be on the cover standing by an old wagon wheel, with my foot propped up on a cactus or something, with a cowboy hat on and one of those shingle leather jackets. Etta Goes Country!
You sound pretty determined.
If you want something bad enough, and you strain to get it, it’ll come. Might not come right when you want it to, but it’ll come.
This story is from the November 13th, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.