Saturday, January 28, 2012

Etta James: Rebel Till The End

Etta James: Rebel Till The End

By Norman (Otis) Richmond aka Jalali

Six men are locked into a Hollywood hotel suite. One is the marvellous Marvin Gaye. The other is the suave, cosmopolitan and debonair Harvey Fugua, the legendary founder of the vocal group the Moonglows and record executive for both Chess and Motown Records. At this moment in history they are a part of Motown royalty both having married Gordy sisters.

Rhongea Southern (now Daar Malik El-Bey), Carl Dyce (the late Sigidi Abdullah), the late Harold Clayton and myself were there auditing for Motown. Gaye and Fugua are the talent scouts.

Our audition is interrupted by a long distance call from Etta James. James, who is calling all the way from Chicago. In the mid 60s this the equivalent of receiving a call from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania as far as we were concerned. We were impressed to say the least. All the guys in the group loved Ms. James. We were all from the same bowl of grits. Like us she was from Angel Town.

James lost her battle with Leukaemia on January 20,2012. She was born Jamesetta Hawkins, on January 25,1938. The Los Angeles born James is regarded as having bridged the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll, is the winner of six Grammys and 17 Blues Music Awards. She was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, the Blues Hall of fame of 2001 and the Grammy Hall of Fame both in 1999 and 2008. Rolling Stone ranked James number 22 on the list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and number 62 on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists.

The outspoken James said she was of two minds about being induced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She made her views known in her autobiography,"Rage To Survive: The Etta James Story" which she wrote along with David Ritz.

Says James, “Part of me is thrilled to be recognized, but another part resents the lily-white institution that sends down its proclamations from on high. They decide who is rock and who isn’t , they decide who is important and who isn’t. Man, I grew up with some cats who should have been inducted years ago --- Jesse Belvin and Johnny “Guitar” Watson to name two”. It must be mentioned that Johnny Otis, the man she introduced when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame died days before her on January 17th.

James attended Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles along with Belvin and Watson. Jeff as it is called by Angeleos has a heavy weight cast of graduates: Noble Peace Prize Winner Ralph Bunche, Dorothy Dandridge, Alvin Ailey, Roy Ayers, Richard “Louie Louie” Berry also went there. Her life was surrounded by controversy. It was widely reported that she wanted to sing “At Last” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Beyonce ended up serenading President Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama.

I saw her only one time in Toronto. Unfortunately, I never interviewed her. However, I have read and enjoyed Rage To Survive. The book reveals many little known things about Soul Sister James. She was once Jamesetta X when she joined the Nation of Islam at Temple Number 15 in Atlanta, Georgia. She says her mother use to know members of Temple 27 in Los Angeles. Sam Cooke, Hank Ballard, Barry White and others came to Temple 27 to hear Minister John Shabazz (who today is Abdul Allah Muhammad).

James’ life is African history at it’s best and worst -- she witnessed many major historical developments. One example: She was staying at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem when El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) met with Cuban President Fidel Castro in September 1960. Says James, “...Fidel Castro was living up in the Theresa Hotel the same time as us. They blocked off the top six floors for him --- this was in 1960 --- and had coops on the roof with live chickens so he could prepare his own food. Fidel worried about being poisoned.” This is probably why he is still in the land of the living."

After she parted company with the Nation of Islam she became part of the Ahmadiyya branch of Islam. She was influenced by her partner at the time John Lewis. “John became pious, praying five times a day. He was also urging me to become more serious. I tried and for a while I was. At the same time, running around with characters like James Brown, I got distracted.”

She was so distracted by Soul Brother Number One, that she along with Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba (Kwame Ture aka Stokely Carmichael) , B.B. King, Sister Sledge and Bill Withers ended up in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) for the "Rumble in Jungle" between Muhammad Ali and George Forman. James points out, “In fact, it was a singer Lloyd Price who had first introduced (Muhammad) Ali to (Don) King.”

However, James ended up not performing. She returned to the USA because of the treatment she received from Mobutu Sese Seko aka Joseph Mobutu, the man who played a role in the assassination of the great African patriot Patrice Emery Lumumba on January 17, 1961.

Unlike many of her contemporaries she did not write off the current crop of black music makers as untalented. "I don't subscribed to the school that says great soul music is dead. That's usually some old fart talking, remembering his youth while forgetting that new generations are entitled to cultures of their own."

James like all human beings had merits and demerits. However, the world will remember Etta James for vocal renditions of songs like "At Last", "I'd Rather Go Blind", "Sunday Kind of Love","I Just Want to Make Love to You" and "All I Could Do Was Cry".

Norman (Otis) Richmond aka Jalali can be heard on Diasporic Music on Uhuru Radio, Sunday's 2pm to 4pm and Saturday Morning Live on Regent Radio 10am to 1pm every Saturday. The co-host of SML is Malinda Francis,@docuvixen Toronto, ON. filmmaker, telling untold stories. LiveProfile: LPL47VBO

No comments: