The “Matriarch of the Blues” has died. Music legend Etta James died last Friday at Riverside Community Hospital in California of complications from leukemia. She was 73. She was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938. Her first manager and promoter cut up Jamesetta’s name and reversed it: Etta James.
Last night when I heard she passed, I was reminded of one night in the ’90s when I went to the House of Blues with my then husband. We went up to the Foundation Room, which at the time was rather exclusive, without knowing who was playing on the stage below. As we stood around drinking and talking to people (I have no recollection of who or why we were there) I heard the song “At Last,” coming from the television monitors placed around the exclusive club, showing the performers on the stage below.
Everyone knows that song; and I think for most people it has some significance, even if you can’t even say what it is. I remember my knees buckling a bit, and I wanted to get down to the concert area, but I also didn’t want to leave the monitor, hearing that song, and that voice, at that moment. I heard something in that voice calling out to me. It would have been the same if she had been singing my very name. She had my undivided attention.
What I didn’t know at the time was that in her voice was the struggle that I would soon face myself—the struggle for independence from the slave master of addiction and alcoholism. For many years, James battled the disease. At the time, I was still in the grip of it.
She is quoted as once saying this about her youth: “I wanted to be rare, I wanted to be noticed, I wanted to be exotic as a Cotton Club chorus girl, and I wanted to be obvious as the most flamboyant hooker on the street. I just wanted to be.”
This sounds like the battle cry of most female addicts and alcoholics. We want the glamour, we want what it promises–without realizing that the promise is empty and that glamour is a big lie. I hadn’t realized it yet at the time. I didn’t know I had a problem and I didn’t know I was invested in a lie.
Standing there in that club, in a clingy designer dress and stealing away to the bathroom to do cocaine and with a tumbler full of straight chilled vodka, I thought I was living the life. But there was a nagging sense that it wasn’t real, though I sought to shut out that thought with every drink, every line, every pill. Etta James and I had a lot in common, and I think I heard that in her voice that night. It gave me chills.
In 1960, James was introduced to heroin. This is not unusual for many of the great singers of her time, it seems. And the story isn’t that unique, either. Johnny Cash, Ray Charles—many succumbed to this substance, and lived to tell the tale. In her time, it was unique in that she was a woman, and was established as a force to be reckoned with in a mostly male-dominated culture and industry. She alternately made some of her best recordings during this time, while trying to maintain her drug lifestyle, which resulted in time behind bars. She spent all her money on drugs, almost sacrificed her career, bounced checks, forged prescriptions and stole from her friends. A judge finally gave her a choice: prison or rehabilitation. In 1974, she spent months in recovery at a psychiatric hospital.
At that time, Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones, a long time fan of Etta, wrote her a letter, telling her that if she stayed clean, she could open for the Rolling Stones on tour. In 1978, she did just that. It took over two decades for James to finally overcome her addictions, during which she spent much time in and out of Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital and The Betty Ford Clinic. By the ’90s, she’d reached a new generation of fans and won a Grammy. And I was one of that new generation. I felt like someone had pointed a finger at me and said, “You, yeah, you. She’s got your number. Listen up.”
She did. We both found our way into recovery, finally into a life of peace where our skin fits. We finally got to recognize the lie we so desperately wanted to be true. In her voice one hears the past heartbreaks, the grit of living hard, the soft and sugary tone like angels melting that comes from the deep and weaponless soul of a woman. You can hear recovery in her voice, the struggle to own oneself and the emancipation, when one is finally free.
That strikes a chord for anyone who has been there, or is there now. Like the sounds that only dogs can hear, it might be true that only we addicts and alcoholics can even hear it in her voice, it might be true that it might not strike the same chord in others as it does with us.
Regardless, she definitely struck many chords with many people. “Etta James was a pioneer. Her ever-changing sound has influenced rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, pop, soul and jazz artists, marking her place as one of the most important female artists of our time,” said Rock and Roll Hall of Fame president and CEO Terry Stewart. “From Janis Joplin to Joss Stone, an incredible number of performers owe their debts to her. There is no mistaking the voice of Etta James, and it will live forever.”
For any one of us to be able to pass out of this world into whatever awaits as a sober person is a great victory of the spirit. Our addictions are our prisons, and we are the key master of our own cage. To be liberated, to own oneself, to know oneself, and to die in this exalted state is the best way to exit this mortal coil. I am inspired that she fought to give this to herself in life, and in her passing moments, and I am grateful for the legacy she leaves behind.
Rest in peace, Etta James.