As a singer, Etta James was alternately under the radar or all over it. And that’s exactly how she was as a person, too.
Stubborn, opinionated, passionate, loving, often drugged out and one of the best vocalists our country produced over the last 70 years, Etta has passed away and deserves a moment of your contemplation, regardless of where she was on your radar.
Conventional media will no doubt cover all the details of her career. But it’s the personal stories that really explain how tightly she was tied into the fabric of this country.
Stories about getting high with Sly Stewart (of Sly and the Family Stone) and unintentionally trashing Doris Day’s home (Sly was having an affair with Doris at the time, and Doris wasn’t home). (And you didn’t hear that from us.)
Or when Aretha Franklin’s father, Bishop C.L. Franklin, held her hand while she courageously battled a heroin addiction so powerful that she had run out of veins to pump the drug into after the ones in her forehead collapsed.
Or the time that she was staying in a Harlem hotel in the 1960s: Malcolm X and Cassius Clay knocked on the door one morning and invited her to breakfast: she slammed the door shut and yelled something to the effect of, “Leave me alone! You know I don’t get up before noon!”
How often does a future American icon slam the door in the face of two American icons because she likes to sleep in? And how often does a performer leave us with five decades of forceful, demanding, reassuring and heartwarming music?
Etta was a living example of the forces of yin and yang, and she’s left us a legacy of music, beauty and friendship that may have been fueled by individual weaknesses and faults but was never consumed by it. Nothing is more transcendentally beautiful than that. Few things are more American than that.
Good-bye, Etta. We miss you.