Sending Etta James Home
And during his eulogy, which was prefaced by a note of condolence from the President and the First Lady:
Christina Aguilera horning in on the legacy. Sorry, but I think that she made it all about her. First time I’ve heard of her citing James as a personal influence, but whatever. I was thinking Janis Joplin, really. However, you can’t coast on just that and The Voice, honey child. So many videos of her overdoing the song that James performed effortlessly and without histrionics even live, but I couldn’t find any tape of Stevie’s entire tribute performance. Even when Wonder and Aguilera were featured, her performance took precedence. Stevie’s got short shrift and mere seconds. He performed three songs. He sang “Shelter In the Rain,” playing an electric keyboard. Stevie was accompanied by several back-up singers for “The Lord’s Prayer,” and Stevie also performed what must have been a moving solo on harmonica.
People might think that that Aguilera and Stevie Wonder were the only celebrity mourners. They were merely the ones who sang. There were 300 personal and professional friends, fans and family of the singer who jammed the little church. More mourners were gathered outside–let’s hope that there were loudspeakers outside so that they could hear the funeral service. Hundreds–perhaps thousands–also walked past by her open casket Friday evening. From The Sacramento Bee:
Davis also read a note from longtime Playboy Jazz Festival host Bill Cosby saluting James’ numerous appearances at that annual gathering.
City of Refuge Church Pastor Noel Jones said that from a spiritual standpoint, “No one is indispensable, but some people are irreplaceable. Etta James was not indispensable, but she is irreplaceable.”
James’ band, The Roots, played several instrumental numbers in memory of the woman they had accompanied in recent years on tour.
Yeah, you read right. The Roots, currently Jimmy Fallon’s house band on his late night show on NBC. Those Roots. A lot of degrees of separation touched Etta James.
And contrary to a rumor floated about BlackBlogosphere, President Barack Obama did indeed send a note of condolence and tribute to the late singer and her family, which Reverend Sharpton read aloud at the funeral. I’m sure that Obama learned of the death, but it also occurred during preparations for the State of the Union address. It was just bad timing. Some things are more important than others. I really don’t think that he or the First Lady meant to ignore her at all, or even disparage her by not having her sing “At Last” at their Inaugural Neighborhood Ball. By then, as we know, Etta’s dementia was becoming pronounced.
Donto James, one of Etta’s two sons, is in this video clip below, which includes not only Sharpton, but Rep. Maxine Waters, who was a family friend. I very much respect the efforts he and his brother Sametto made on their mother’s behalf over the years to make sure that she was cared for in her final days.
Donto James, the older of James’ sons, recalled how his mother had a soft spot for anyone who lost their mother. Donto James played drums in his mother’s band.
“She’d give them a job like that,” he told the mourners.
“She loved her band. She would pick up anybody to work for,” he added.
In a lighter moment, the son recalled how high-spirited his mother was.
“She was feisty, very feisty,” he said. “I found myself as a son trying to clean up some things. I should have tried to stay out of it. I don’t know what I was doing.”
James’ mother, Dorothy Hawkins, was 14 when she gave birth to Etta in Los Angeles. As her mother was mostly absent, running the streets and getting in trouble with the law, Etta was first raised by her mother’s landlords. Her talent was apparent from an early age. She began singing at her guardians’ church, St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, her foster father made her sing on demand for his poker-playing pals. He even woke the child from a sound sleep several times to perform for him, and insisted that the child sing all of the solos in the church choir (until the choirmaster, backed up by the church board, told him to take Etta elsewhere; more about that choirmaster below). This experience bred in James a profound dislike of being pushed to sing against her will or inclination.
At age five, James developed two relationships that would remain with her throughout her life: one relationship with singing and one with black gay men, and the LGBT community as a whole. In her 2003 autobiography Rage To Survive, James describes her first vocal coach, James Earl Hines—musical director at L.A.’s St. Paul Baptist Church and one of the the early gospel superstars—as “married, acted gay as a goose, and I was crazy about him…. Truth is, all the gay guys in the choir sang like angels, and acted so different…. I loved their little underground talk, their gossiping about the sisters.”
“I [was] serious about turning little churchgoing Jamesetta into a tough bitch called Etta James…. I wanted to look like a great big high-yellow ho’. I wanted to be nasty.”
James ascribes the blonde-yellow hair and black eyebrows that she adopted early in her career to being closely associated with street-based sex workers and drag queens at the time. That’s who she was emulating.
She also says the beginning of her addiction to heroin was not a way to cope with the abandonment issues or physical abuse she suffered as a child. She starting shooting drugs because she thought that’s what bad girls do, and because she saw Billie Holiday, her idol, as the ultimate bad girl. She lost many friends to issues related to substance addiction (Billie Holiday, Destiny—a black drag queen and best friend to James, even Janis Joplin, who emulated James and for [whose] overdose James felt personally responsible). She was able to kick heroin in the 1970s, but she struggled with addiction much of her adult life, and she was pretty open about that fact.
James’ widower, Artis Mills, is said to have been a former pimp.
When her foster mother died in 1950, Dorothy Hawkins, who had continued as a rather shadowy, but unreliable figure in Etta’s young life, suddenly took the twelve-year-old girl to live with her in San Francisco. As Etta grew to maturity, Dorothy introduced her daughter to big band jazz and Billie Holiday. It was there in San Francisco when Johnny Otis discovered her singing with the Creolettes—and with her girlfriend Sugar Pie DeSanto—in the Fillmore, also known as the Harlem of the West with its black-owned clubs, restaurants, and other entertainment outlets. The underage Etta forged her mother’s signature on the contract and bade her mother goodbye.
The relationship between mother and daughter never mellowed but continued to be contentious the older both became. Dorothy Hawkins would not see her daughter perform until 1999, some three years before her own passing in 2002. Both were influenced by black street culture and music, and I believe Etta, to her mother’s chagrin, surpassed Dorothy in this regard. However, I’m sure that this also gave much for her mother to criticize out of jealousy; although truly, Dorothy had compromised any claim to motherhood long ago. Even with their experiences, they never found common ground to bridge their differences. When Etta recorded an album in 1995 that won her a Grammy, Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday, she was actually referring to her enigmatic mother.
Way before her death, Dorothy told Etta that she was the daughter of the famous itinerant pool shark Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone. In 1987, when she was 49, she visited Minnesota Fats, then 74, in his quarters at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee.
“He says, ‘I’ll be in the lobby,’ ” she says, pronouncing lobby as ‘laahhhhby.’ “He talked like that. ‘I’ll be in the lobby with one of my dames.’ He had a vibe like me. As far as me knowing that’s my father? I don’t know. But he seemed like he was.
“When he passed, he sent me a beautiful golden watch that hung on his clothes that had his name on it. And he sent me a letter, and told me that he wanted me to write a song about him and stuff, which I never did. But I often thought about that.”
James looks down wistfully at her hands. Despite a perfect French manicure, they’re large, masculine hands — just like those of Minnesota Fats. Then her head snaps back up. “Oh! And he gave us a picture – and the picture looked just like Donto, my oldest son. It was just like Donto.”
Wanderone, due to the passage of time, could not confirm one way or another whether he met her mother or whether she was his daughter. The encounter was probably a one-night stand. This meant that a 24-year-old Wanderone, a white man who was described as having a taste for black females, and for running around with his pool cue on Central Avenue, had had his way with a 13-year-old black girl in the late Thirties. A black girl whom James herself described as a kind of black jazz goddess/street chick dressed to kill in black (and looking tres older than she actually was). This was way before DNA testing emerged as the rule for establishing paternity.
It doesn’t appear that Wanderone didn’t want to let on that he was her father. He just didn’t remember or know for sure and especially what it really meant, because he was pretty much a rolling stone. The idea of family just didn’t appeal to him. Although he married twice, he had had no children. And he was always with a woman, and color didn’t stop him. He was not tied down, not even by his wedding rings. I think his hesitation would have occurred even if she wasn’t black.
However, I think that Wanderone was impressed by her facial and bodily resemblance (Etta was stouter at that time) not to completely discredit her explanation of the circumstances of her birth. He didn’t have to have the letter, photo and watch sent to Etta when he died. Always the self-promoter, he wanted her to write a song about him? Hoo-boy. I’m glad Etta didn’t follow up on it. Who knows, we may eventually find out the definitive truth one of these days. But Etta was convinced by the photograph. I am glad that Wanderone gave her a kind of acknowledgement, and I think that was all that really mattered.
Etta James is not only survived by her husband Artis Mills, and her sons, Donto and Sametto, but by four grandchildren.
“Mom, I love you,” Donto James said during brief remarks. “When I get to the gates, can you please be there for me?”
I’m sure she will be.
- Blues star Etta James remembered (bbc.co.uk)
- Hundreds Gather for the Funeral of Etta James (rollingstone.com)
- Etta James remembered as triumphant trailblazer at memorial service (thegrio.com)