In 1997, then Vibe Editor in Chief Danyel Smith sent me to the Sofitel in midtown Manhattan to interview Etta James. Etta was preparing to release her 19th studio album Love’s Been Rough On Me. She’d also completed the interviews with David Ritz that would become her 1998 collaborative autobiography, “Rage To Survive.” She was self-conscious of her appearance, she was still holding onto weight she’d eventually lose, but she acknowledged she was insecure about it aloud and proceeded to disarm me with a story from her early days as a teenage rising star.
She told me the one time she met Bille Holiday was at a radio station, that she was on her way in and Billie was on her way out. Etta was so intimidated by Billie, so unprepared for this moment in the small anteroom of a broadcasting station, that she fixed her eyes on Billie’s hands. She remembered Billie’s hands were swollen ‘like fat little sausages’ and that Billie noticed Ella staring at them as she unsuccessfully tried stuffing her fingers in her gloves. Billie palmed Etta’s famously round face and tilted her gaze to meet her own and slurred a warning Etta told me she’d never forget. “Don’t you let them do this to you, you hear. My fingers are pumped full of junk and drink, just like my toes. Don’t you let this be you girl.”
When Etta told me that story in her hotel room that afternoon in midtown Manhattan in 1997 she was twenty years sober and she’d caught me staring at her plump hands. Like Billie, she’d rubbed her blues black but she was stronger. Etta lived more than four decades clean and clear, and as she herself admitted, sometimes cranky. Unlike Billie, her performance style was unrestrained. Etta wailed when she weeped. She was a powerhouse of a vocalist because she was a tank of a woman, but she was also and always, vulnerable and honest. Etta was no one’s victim. She told me she survived heartache and thieving record men and all that was heavy in the world—through music.
When she found herself past 50 and broke, she started all over again, belting out her own classics in Los Angeles nightclubs in front of audiences who thought the singer they didn’t recognize was covering the classic version of songs she’d made famous. I submitted that article and am not sure why it didn’t run, but I’ll never forget the quick way Etta took me down a rabbit hole of blues with that simple retelling of a story she couldn’t forget of a warning she couldn’t out run.
dream hampton has written about culture for 20 years. She’s a mother, an activist and an award-winning filmmaker. She lives in Detroit. Follow her on Twitter @dreamhampton.