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Photograph by Anthony Montes De Oca
Etta Life: At 69, Etta James is still sassy and brassy.
Etta James brings her signature sass and soul to the Mountain Winery
By Paul Davis
THERE ARE FEW jazz or soul performers of the past five decades with the marquee value or the cultural impact of Etta James. Beginning with her '50s work with Johnny Otis and the Peaches, James has paved the groundwork for any number of soul archetypes—the sassy, brassy woman, the firebrand performer, the singular blues belter who hits the stage and lays it down just like it is.
There are few performers that equal James' stature in American music, or who have lived—and emerged intact—from such a storied life or tumultuous career. In the early '60s, James truly came into her own as an iconic performer, particularly with the 1961 release of At Last for the Chess Records label, a release that would become a seminal album in the annals of soul and R&B music.
James takes no guff and doesn't suffer fools lightly, but in person she is a highly opinionated yet charming and engaging individual who tempers that irrepressible sass with a self-deprecating wit. The 69-year-old singer jokes about her age with the kind of candor and irrepressible spirit with which she once spoke of her difficulties with substance abuse. Acknowledging her age and joking about her sometimes spaced demeanor, James laughs, "People think I have Alzheimer's, I guess just because I'm kind of a dingy person? My personality sometimes is very dingy, and sometimes it's very serious. Really, I'm not dingy! Every time I say something and it's something from the past, [my publicist] looks at me with her eyes up and says, 'See, you don't have Alzheimer's!"
James was urged to get a brain scan due to her age, which she begrudgingly agreed to do, yet there's no keeping the unimpeachable soul singer down. "We went into [the doctor's], and he put me in a big round tube; we got out of there, and the little old doctor said, 'You're fine; there's nothing wrong with you.'"
The frailties of aging aside, James has lost none of the spunk, spark or soul for which she is known and is not going quietly into any good night, thank you very much. Her new album, All the Way, finds her mining some unexpected sources for material. While renditions of songs popularized by Frank Sinatra, Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Bobby Womack don't appear to be huge leaps for the versatile performer, covers of songs written by R. Kelly ("I Believe I Can Fly",) Prince ("Purple Rain") and Simply Red ("Holding Back the Years") are somewhat unexpected detours for James.
The arrangements on All the Way are more subdued than on her classic or even recent releases, and the choices of source material a bit unexpected, but James scoffs at any presumptions that the likes of Prince or R. Kelly are too far removed from her sphere of recognition. "All the people on that album, they're people I really like, that I've had personal relations with," she notes, before scrupulously pointing out, "not intimate personal relationships though!"
And while purists who wish that James stayed rooted in the vernacular of her early work might take umbrage, James is quick to note that All the Way is unique among her entire discography in that she alone chose the material she interprets. "All of the artists, they were my personal picks," she says. "On my other albums, the artists weren't always my choice, but on this one they were."
While the more contemporary song choices might garner the quizzical stares, the title track—an interpretation of a song that Frank Sinatra popularized—was a particularly personal choice for James, who notes that "I always wanted to sing like Frank Sinatra. My mother always loved Sinatra and [Nat King] Cole."
Despite the initial cognitive dissonance that might arise from a glimpse at the pop-heavy track listing, James insists that the songs are perfectly natural choices. "People keep on asking me [about the song choices]," she protests, which "makes me think, 'Does it sound like me?' I don't know. I think people who ask that, they're the kind that like that down-home, talk-about-it, that kind of thing. They're looking for me to come on like gangbusters, but to me I am coming on like gangbusters."
James may be an icon, but she's a disarmingly straightforward and unpretentious one, willing to embrace her own myth, warts and all, while kicking out an unimpeachable sass and soul.
ETTA JAMES AND THE ROOTS BAND perform on Tuesday (Sept. 11) at 7:30pm at Mountain Winery, 14831 Pierce Road, Saratoga. Tickets are $39.50–$57.50. (408.998.TIXS)
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