By Alex Distefano
By Daniel Kohn
By Aimee Murillo
By Nick Schou
By Nate Jackson
By Nate Jackson
By Dave Lieberman
By Daniel Kohn
I became an ETTA JAMES fan when I saw her at the now-defunct La Jolla Jazz Festival in 1979 (Art Pepper was also on the bill in one of his final performances, along with Charlie Musselwhite —wotta day that was!). In the genteel surroundings of this upscale fest, James turned in a performance so low-down, ferocious and horny that she seemed to turn into a she-demon with a bright-red "in-season" ass right before my very eyes. I had front-row-center seats, and "Miss Peaches" decided to single me out, making me part of the performance when she tore into Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love to You." She screamed the already ribald words directly at me but changed them up to include lines like "I want to make you my slave of sex!" as she spread her legs wide, rhythmically thrust her well-padded pudendum at my face, bunched up her heaving, melon-like mammaries in her hands and jiggled them at me suggestively. I'm sure I was beet-red and shvitzing like a triathlete the whole time, but I really remember nothing of myself; only the image of this large and ungainly creature well into her 40s, sexually humiliating young Buddy in front of a couple of thousand amused onlookers.
I talked to m'fair lady after the show, and she didn't even remember me. I had been a prop. No James juice would cross my person that night (hey, she was no bathing beauty, but I would have welcomed her onto my list of conquests for pure bragging rights and experience). And what a glorious 'tude she had! When I asked her why her band all looked like extras from a Roger Corman biker flick, she remarked, "I don't want no Suzy Creamcheese-lookin' sissies up there on that stage with me. If I could, I'd hire me some Hell's Angels!"
Fast-forward 10 years; I'm interviewing James again, and she's crying the tears of a brokenhearted little girl. She's convinced that fabled pool shark Minnesota Fats is her long-lost father. She's met with him, confronted him about it, but he refuses to 'fess up (I have no facts to prove or disprove James' theory, but one has to admit the resemblance is rather striking). She's deeply wounded and in obvious pain, pouring out her heart to a total stranger who can offer no more succor than a couple of uncomfortable "there there"s.
Here is the formula behind James' magic, both in her music and her persona. She's tougher than Sonny Liston and as tender as Shirley Temple, all in one complex and eminently human package. When she sings "I'd Rather Go Blind," you feel the heartbreak and disappointment deeply; a lump rises in the throat, and you want to hold her, comfort her, ease her pain. Conversely, when she sings "Tell Mama" in that tough, self-assured, Earth-mama tone, you fully believe her when she says, "I'll make everything all right." When she sings "Watchdog," she sounds so righteously pissed off that you believe a rolling pin might crease your skull at any second if you don't get out of her way—real fast. And when she sings "I Just Want to Make Love to You," it sounds like she's ready to tie you up and grind on your head until the first two layers of face have been worn off. Wotta woman!
James' deep, rich contralto is an amazing instrument. Steeped in gospel and blues, it's a far more expressive and versatile voice than those of more celebrated soul divas such as Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross or (shudder!) Whitney Houston. She can go from a hushed whisper to a frightening snarl in a single verse, making every note poignant and fully believable in the process. Every acrobatic line, every melismatic syllable is in full service of the emotion at hand; there are no vocal gymnastics just for the sake of showing off.
Advancing age and a history of substance abuse have taken some of the edge off her voice, but James has responded by recording a few jazz albums and acquitted herself very nicely. Nothing in her past would have suggested that she possesses the requisite restraint to interpret Billie Holiday so elegantly, yet James has done so while retaining her personality in the process. Still, she sometimes likes to rage with all the fervor of her youth, as she did on Life, Love & the Blues a couple of years ago.
I've seen James in concert enough times over the years to state with authority that she can be hit-and-miss. When properly galvanized (as she was at that '79 jazz fest), no one is a more exciting performer. I've also seen her become bored onstage and fax in her performance. The guess here is that being billed with the redoubtable Dr. John on Tuesday night at the Sun Theatre, Miss Peaches will be inspired enough that you'll indeed want to shake her tree.
For DR. JOHN is a great character and musician. He stiffed me on an interview a few years ago and then called at 3 a.m. a few weeks after the concert had come and gone, pumped up on sumpin' or other and real eager to talk. He sounded quite surprised and disappointed when I told him it was too late. If I hadn't been so tired, I'd have had the presence of mind to go ahead and interview him anyway. Lord knows what disturbing words might have come from his mouth (for a hint, read his 1994 autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon:_The Life of Dr. John the Night Tripper, one of the most entertaining and revealing books ever to come from the pen of a musician).