Nut Cutters! Aaaaaaaiiiie!
1) Tattooed, gangbanging love child Etta James left home at age 16 in 1954—against her mother's wishes—to tour with the libidinous R&B revue known as the Johnny Otis Show. Provocatively billed as "Miss Peaches," little Etta sang and recorded sexually suggestive material such as "Roll With Me Henry," later changed to "The Wallflower" over the protests of disc jockeys. Today, this episode would constitute a national scandal—at least on Fox News.
2) When she is at the top of her game, no one else has ever come close to being as passionate and moving a blues/soul performer as Etta James; not Aretha, not Gladys and not even Mavis. With every note she sings, Etta sounds as if she either wants to kill you slowly or fuck you savagely; perhaps both.
3) She was a black woman who wore garish platinum wigs several decades before it became fashionable to do so. She also wore more over-the-top eye makeup than Marilyn Manson and Dennis Rodman combined and, naturally, looked much better than either.
4) Her gorgeous take on "At Last" is the only worn-to-death wedding anthem that doesn't make the hors d'oeuvres rumble ominously in my stomach when it's played as the bride and groom embrace for their first dance and endeavor to extort your money.
5) She's had the good taste to record duets with the likes of such unsung heroes as Richard Berry, Harvey Fuqua, Sugarpie De Santo and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, some of my all-time favorites you've probably never heard of.
6) Her bands reliably look more like hardened thugs than musicians. "I don't want no Susie Cream-cheese-looking sissies up there," James once told me. "If I could, I'd hire me some Hell's Angels." Mr. Barger? Are you listening?
7) She overcame severe drug addiction but never preached temperance or whined about her drug use; in fact, she wears her travails as proud battle scars and probably thinks you're a wuss for never having had any drug problems of your own.
8) She has released songs as furiously feminist as "Watchdog" and as touchingly needy as "I'd Rather Go Blind" on the same album, managing to be both as scary as Cruella DeVille with nut cutters in hand and vulnerable as a sickly kitten at the same time; no small trick.
9) She also turned Alice Cooper's cheeky "Only Women Bleed" into perhaps the most pain-racked feminist anthem ever recorded, something akin to distilling single malt Scotch from Kool-Aid.
10) Her autobiography, Rage to Survive, is so downright scary it makes your toes curl up inside your shoes, your nipples recede and your navel pop inside out.
11) During an interview several years ago, she told me she believed famed pool shark Minnesota Fats was her daddy, but he refused to admit it. Then she started weeping over the phone, despite the fact that I was a total stranger who was going to write about her.
12) Her live shows are exquisitely, notoriously lewd affairs. The first time I saw her live, in 1979, James singled me out for sexual humiliation. As she stormed into a perfectly obscene version of "I Just Want to Make Love to You," she humped her ample hips at me, pressed her ripe-melony breastices together and panted like a tigress in season, reducing me, in all my phallitude, into a mere prop for her show (see photo).
13) During another interview, she requested that I dub her copies of all my rare Otis Redding videos. I complied, and she never so much as said "thank you," and she has refused all interview requests since then. And I don't even really mind. Much.
14) If "In the Basement" isn't the tuffest, greasiest, funkiest three minutes of R&B ever set to wax, my name is Justin Timberlake. It is the quintessential sound that terrified white suburban America in the mid-'60s: the sound of pissed-off black people blowing off steam.
15) For all her legendary status and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, Etta James is no diva, not even a little. One can easily imagine her picking her nose and wiping the boogers under a chair or scratching her armpit and sniffing her fingers.
16) Miss Peaches has become so morbidly obese she's more like Mrs. Potatohead these days, consigned to tooling around stages in a groovy little golf-cart-like contraption when she performs. Yet she's so nonchalant about this that she actually makes it look fun, as if all performers ought to follow suit.
17) Her shows are reliably attended by contingents of gleeful, dancing lesbians, which is a nice bonus. I've never quite figured out the James/Sappho cult connection, but it's certainly a more interesting phenomenon than a mosh pit.
18) As her voice has deepened and coarsened with age, James has increasingly turned to recording jazz over R&B, including a spectacular Billie Holiday tribute album that turned around her career quite nicely. She has tackled the new (for her) genre without sacrificing anything of her deeply personal, idiosyncratic style in the process —a true interpreter in the best sense of the word.
19) When I broke up with my last girlfriend, we had a huge fight over who got to keep the Etta James CDs (she won, and I had to buy them all again). This let me know, at least, that I hadn't lived all those years with a Philistine.
20) In my dreams, Etta James performs cruel acts on Willa Ford involving spiked latex implements in a tank full of live eels. Thanks, Etta. For everything!
Etta James performs at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-BLUE. Sat., 7:30 p.m. $37.50. 21+.
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