Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock & Roll &

Tough Love

book cover

Etta James's death at 73 on January 20th was not a surprise. Her leukemia had been declared incurable in December; her dementia was ongoing; her kidneys were bad. The gastric bypass surgery that put the 400-pound singer back on her feet in 2002 had long since proven more dangerous than promised. And though none of the many laudatory obits mentioned it, there was also her liver, which, having soldiered through decades of heroin, alcohol, cocaine, and painkiller addiction, must have been ready for a rest.

Prepared by these hard facts for the inevitable sales uptick--James even appeared briefly in the Top 10 of the Rhapsody streaming site after she died, though never as high as Adele, who has said James inspired her to become a singer--Universal asked ace compiler Andy McKaie to prepare a four-CD set to supplant or supplement 2000's excellent three-CD The Chess Box. This he achieved by adding nine tracks from 1954-58 and 22 from 1977-2007 while subtracting 19 from James's Chess/Argo/Cadet years, 1960-76. Because this arrangement respects James's extraordinary longevity, Heart & Soul: A Retrospective would appear to be where to catch up with this essential artist you may well have ignored. But it's not like those omitted Chess tracks would waste your time. Even before she died, they kept sounding better, just like the five years we'd always thought Aretha Franklin threw away at Columbia. Great voices get more precious with the years.

Great voices are also difficult to describe, so much so that obituaries seldom try, although Peter Keepnews recalled a few useful words from Jon Pareles in The New York Times: "a huge range, a multiplicity of tones and vast reserves of volume." All true, and relevant, but if range and volume did the trick there'd be great voices by the thousand--it's in those unspecified tones that the vocal "grain" resides. Preliminarily, say that James, who began recording at 15, was often girlish and always not, and that her jailbait clarity coexisted readily with her big-mama grit. Combined with her range, volume, and knack for drama, those contradictions rendered her a sing-the-phone-book original, which served her well with the generic r&b ditties of her pre-Chess teens and also in her fifties and sixties, when she turned out some 20 rather miraculous if somewhat hit-or-miss albums. That she should have recorded effectively for so many decades, from 1955 till 2012--leukemia and dementia notwithstanding, her 2011 farewell, The Dreamer, is more hit than miss--puts her in a class with Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, and James Brown, slightly older artists who unlike James never identified as rock and roll or targeted teenagers. She wasn't merely "influential."

More than their contemporaries, all four '50s lifers survived harrowing childhoods: extreme poverty, very young and/or absent mothers, prostitution in everyday life, brothers dying before their eyes. Born at the tail end of the Depression, Jamesetta Hawkins was the best off economically and also biracial. But what really set her apart was that she wasn't southern or "downhome"--she grew up in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and her family was from Omaha. Raised till she was 12 by a nurturing stepmother who suffered the last of multiple strokes under James's care, young Jamesetta then shuttled between her footloose party-girl mother, her self-possessed hooker aunt, and a working-class uncle who was the family's rock. Musical from infancy, she was taught to sing by the gay choirmaster of a big-time Baptist church and always enjoyed LGBT support. No showbiz life is square. But not many girls go pro at 14 the way James did. She was one hip chick, and like her biological mother's beloved Billie Holiday, she surveyed the many options her upbringing posited and made up her mind to be bad.

All this I gather from one of David Ritz's finest r&b as-told-tos, James's 1995 autobiography, Rage to Survive. Not that every memory is factual or every date verified--Ritz's calling is to help artists tell the story they want to tell, not research it for them. But James's chosen story is rich in insight as well as incident. The players in her private life are worth meeting, and the artist sketches are revealing whether their subjects are well-chronicled like Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Sly Stone, and Ike and Tina Turner, cult heroes like Allen Toussaint and Esther Phillips, or all too undocumented like Jesse Belvin, Richard Berry, Johnny Guitar Watson, Larry Williams, and doo-wop headman turned world-beating producer-bizzer Harvey Fuqua, the first and far from worst of the many users James loved more than they loved her. Moreover, the dysfunction tales--the hyperextended family saga, the "crafty grafty men," the copping and chiseling and arrests and incarcerations and rehabs and millions down the toilet--don't dominate the music. If anything, they help us understand it.

Musically, James was all shook up. Church-trained at the behest of her godly stepmother, she never sang in church again after her stepfather tried to take over her nascent gospel career when she was 10, though she happily cashed a check for a gospel album once. Her jazz-sophisticate mother warned Guitar Slim-blasting Jamesetta that she'd "wind up in a bucket of blood," which sounded fine to a mouthy hellion who "adored" jazz but resented its "discipline, being exactly in tune, working out complex harmonies and subtle rhythms." Convinced that the r&b she dove into with pals like Watson and Williams was the real rock and roll--and still outraged that Georgia Gibbs got to bowdlerize James's 1955 "The Wallflower" into the crossover smash "Dance with Me Henry"--she nonetheless pays selected white musicians compliments so astute I feel sure she means them: Janis Joplin, who idolized and imitated her; Randy Newman, whose songs Joplin's producer Gabriel Mekler gave her; the Rolling Stones, who in 1978 judged her "wildass enough" to open for "the most intense fans I've ever seen"; Stevie Ray Vaughan, credited by James with instigating an '80s blues revival that improved her paydays.

James was hardly the only African-American singer with such a broad frame of reference. Because musicians tend to be interested in music for some reason, it happens all the time. But few have taken so much stuff so deep or mastered it so variously. James's street-tough come-hither and wronged desolation, her hunger and relish, reflected the girlish-yet-not tension built into her physical voice and also--shaped as she was by both shrewd demimondaines and solid citizens--her psychological makeup. This was an observant, cynical, highly intelligent woman who lived as much for the fun of it as for the love she craved and the dark nights she got for her trouble. She made many friends and took no guff. And in the course of her very long career she mixed r&b, rock, soul, pop, blues, and eventually even jazz.

In a lifelong pattern, James recorded plenty in the '50s whether she had hits or not, writing a few songs (including "W.O.M.A.N.," when she was 17) and leaving a legacy summed up by Virgin's The Essential Modern Records Collection but well-represented on the Heart & Soul box. Hear especially the revealing texts "Crazy Feeling," better known as "Do Something Crazy," and the Etta-penned, Little Richard-influenced eHarmony application "Tough Lover": "He can make you laugh, he can make you cry/ He's so tough he'll make Venus come alive/ He can do anything that he wants to do/ He'll step on Jesse James's blue suede shoes" (and Etta James's too, bet on it). Thus she proved one of only two female heroes of the rock and roll '50s. Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker were experienced nightclub singers who never grokked the teen thing; Esther Phillips got hooked on junk so fast she was out of commission from 1954 to 1962. James's only competition started recording at 15 but was otherwise her diametrical opposite: the classically trained Catholic schoolgirl Arlene Smith of the Chantels, a grave teen angel who later studied at Juilliard and became a schoolteacher while James did something crazy and then something crazier.

As indicated in the absurd Leonard Chess biopic Cadillac Records, where Beyoncé plays that OD-sex scene that never happened more soulfully than she sings "Stop the Wedding," James then became Chess's most reliable '60s hitmaker. But despite all the obit talk of how she crossed over by turning the minor Tin Pan Alley chestnut "At Last" into Barack Obama's theme song, that one never broke Top 40--James's biggest pop-chart successes were "Pushover" in 1963 and "Tell Mama" in 1968, and neither got to 20. Much more than the soul-identified Curtis Mayfield, Wilson Pickett, Gladys Knight, or Aretha Franklin, she remained r&b-specific as "r&b" itself became a temporarily outmoded concept. This reflected both her tough sound and her blues label--Chess a&r chief Ralph Bass lacked the pop instincts and connections of Motown and Atlantic. When he finally sent James down to Muscle Shoals, where Pickett had found so much success, she recorded the hit Janis Joplin latched onto, "Tell Mama," which she admired technically but found wanting as ideology: "I didn't like being cast in the role of the Great Earth Mother, the gal you come to for comfort and easy sex."

In Muscle Shoals James formed a lasting musical relationship with keyboardist Barry Beckett, who was producing her as late as 1996. And she did good work in this vein, always when she covered Otis Redding and sometimes too on her two albums with the controlling yet irresistible Jerry Wexler. But to my ear that soon-familiar soul groove seems too friendly and civilized for someone who learned to sing in church and never went back, and perhaps unintuitive for a non-southerner. Not that I was any more skeptical at the time than, for instance, Janis Joplin. On the contrary, it was Joplin's man Mekler moving in on James that seemed dubious to me--why foist Randy Newman on the "Tell Mama" gal? But now James's choir-powered, bitterly sacrilegious reading of Newman's "God's Song" seems like her truest recording, and his calmly incendiary "Let's Burn Down the Cornfield" captures her badness well. "Feeling Lowdown," where Mekler set her to moaning miserably over jazz chords for three minutes, is also a coup.

Post-Chess, James's catalogue is a morass. I was surprised to learn, for instance, that she'd done an album with Toussaint in 1980, and when I located it was equally surprised to find out how mediocre it is. Unfortunately, her best late-period producer, Private Music's John Snyder, was not Universal-affiliated, which is presumably one reason the standards albums he did with her--the finest the Billie Holiday tributes, Mystery Lady and Blue Gardenia -- get short shrift on Heart & Soul. But given the box's title we can also assume a desire to showcase James as Queen of Soul II, a mistake not just for the musical reasons laid out above but because the melodrama built into the concept tends to overwhelm both her brains and her disruptive impulses. James was right to distrust jazz as a tough teen--its veneer of class wasn't for her. But early on at Chess she was assigned the likes of "At Last," "Stormy Weather," and "These Foolish Things." And without ever turning a cocktail lounge into a bucket of blood, she claimed these ballads by roughing them up like a drunk in a china shop--a mouthy, sexy kid brazening through. Redoing Billie 40 or 50 years later, she's gained polish, savvy, wisdom, pain. But she's still rough. By never letting her palpable respect smooth over her well-weathered prerogatives, she maps peaks and valleys in this sacrosanct territory beyond the emotional ken of Madeleine Peyroux or Carmen McRae.

All of which is to regretfully suggest that Etta James is a little too deep to catch up with via a single career-spanning box. There's no easy route--why should there be? The Chess Box, The Essential Modern Records Collection, and one or two of the Snyders would be my best advice. Or if you're feeling skint you could limit Chess to the budget Millennium Collection and nose around for those Mekler tracks.

And then there's The Dreamer, with her co-producing sons on bass and drums. By January 10th I'd concluded sadly that it didn't click somehow. By January 30th I couldn't get enough of "Groove Me" and "Cigarettes and Coffee" and had come to terms with her patently unautobiographical claim to have been "born and raised in the boondocks." Great voices get even more precious when you know they're gone.

Barnes & Noble Review, February 17, 2012