— Ellie Broughton

Talk at the William Morris Gallery: Etta James

ettaIn my most audacious use of a book review ever, I gave a talk for the Vine Collective at the William Morris Gallery in August about what I learned from reading Etta James’s autobiography, Rage To Survive.

The Vine Collective has been behind a number of brilliant events in the past year, including a night of music from The Magnetic North at RIBA, and so I was really chuffed to be on the bill with Salena Godden at one of Kirsteen McNish’s nights. Click ‘Read more’ to read the talk in full.

I haven’t done a lot of talks but last February I did a bit at a night in Dalston called Romantic Misadventures and last year I read short stories at the Peckham Pelican. Follow the links to find out more about those two readings.

There are a few reasons why I wanted to do my talk on Etta James.
–I wanted to regale an audience with the story of the time she saw Satan on the dancefloor of a gay bar in San Francisco.
–the time she got chased by bounty hunters and sent to prison in Alaska
–The time she bought a monkey, dressed him up as Elvis and came home to find him eating her pet canaries
–And the time she got a pet fox, fed it barbiturates and it tried to eat her baby.

When I read Rage To Survive I was expecting it to be full of the kind of stories I just mentioned. What I didn’t expect was that Etta was going to be so likeable. She had a pretty tough childhood, crap mum, a couple of awful boyfriends, and an almost unshakeable heroin habit.

But she also had a highly successful career, lots of great friends, got married, had kids and kept gigging until her death aged 73. She still had the energy aged 71 to publicly slag Beyoncé off for singing “her song” at the inaugural ball for Obama.

So today I’m going to tell you a bit about Etta, and her uncompromising attitude, in the hopes you also read Rage To Survive.

For those who don’t know, Etta James was an American jazz, blues and soul singer who started performing when she was just 14. She was a brilliant R&B singer, and she also crossed over into rock, opening shows for the Rolling Stones. Her song ‘I’d rather go blind’, which she wrote the lyrics for, is one of the rawest, most brilliant songs ever released.

Etta was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25 1938. Her mum Dorothy had been just 14 when she gave birth to Etta. Family planning was so brutal in the 1940s that, Etta claims, her mother would have been sterilised afterwards. It’s certainly true that she had no more children.

When Etta was still a baby she was sent to reform school so Etta’s aunt Cozetta, ten years Dorothy’s senior, and her uncle James, took Etta in while Dorothy was away.

When Dorothy got back from reform school Cozetta and James gave Etta back to her, at which point she immediately handed Etta on to another couple. Lula and Jesse ran the boarding house Dorothy and Etta were staying in. Etta was very very much loved by that couple and she had a happy childhood with them. Sadly, Mama Lu died after a series of strokes when Etta was 12. Then Etta had to go back to live with Dorothy, who she disliked intensely.

I know that there are some people in the audience tonight whose mums are lovely. I also know there are some people out there whose mums are, and I’m sorry but there isn’t another word for it: dickheads. But I’m pretty sure I can guarantee that Etta James’s mum was much, much worse than yours (and your mum’s work then please come say hi afterwards because that sounds like a real story).

Dorothy was really a piece of work. For example after Lu died, Dorothy was on the toilet at home when she began to groan, and shake. Etta was terrified – because this was exactly how Mama Lu had died just a month before.

Etta panicked, ran in to her mother and physically lifted her up off the toilet to carry her out of the bathroom – only to feel Dorothy shaking with laughter in her arms. Dorothy had remembered what Etta has told her about Mama Lu’s death and reenacted it exactly for a practical joke.

But Dorothy did one vital thing for Etta: she gave her daughter a deep love and appreciation for music, particularly jazz. Dorothy’s favourite singer was Billie Holiday, something Etta never forgot.

Unfortunately, much like Billie Holiday, Etta spent many years addicted to heroin. In Rage to Survive Etta reveals just how low her addiction took her. At one point, she admits, she stole her band’s instruments and pawned them in order to score. She stole, ran scams and went to prison several times to fuel the habit. She saw friends die, and introduced her husband to the drug too. Those chapters of her life are not heroic in the slightest, but her frankness about them is pretty humbling.

Etta was a proud observer of people and met a lot of great, funny, kind and loving people in her life. She was an inspiration to Janis Joplin, enjoyed a long happy marriage from 1969 until her death, and had two sons. But what amazed me most about Etta’s story was the relationship she managed to salvage with Dorothy.

Dorothy refused to go to any of Etta’s gigs until Etta’s Hollywood Bowl concert in 1989. The pair of them had, by that point, managed to create an ‘entente cordiale’ – nevertheless when Dorothy showed up to the show she carried on with the same old style, swearing at Etta’s tour managers and getting herself thrown out of Etta’s dressing room. But after the show Dorothy showed up backstage, crying with pride. In 1993 Etta recorded a whole album of Billie Holiday’s standards and dedicated it to Dorothy – something Etta had longed to do all her life.

On the subject of heroes, the old cliché advises you to never meet yours. And to be honest I think if I came face to face with Etta I’d be terrified.

Well, Etta met Billie Holliday once early in her career and the uncompromising, unshockable Etta James was, for once, struck dumb. Etta recalls she was supposed to be recording a show with Billie – she says:

‘Anticipation was high… Every time the doors would swing open I’d hold my breath, expecting it to be Lady Day. I sat up straight out of respect for Miss Holliday. I was nervous. Finally the doors swung open and there she was:
Slowly she came walking in with a man on either side of her. […] Her red lipstick looked greasy and her eyes looked tired. She wore a pair of heels with spaghetti straps, which is when I noticed her swollen feet. Terribly swollen. My eyes went from her feet to her hands which were so puffy they looked like boxing gloves. I didn’t want to stare, but I couldn’t help it. My heart was hammering. I had to get a good look at Billie Holiday.
Our eyes locked.
“Are you looking at me?” she asked in a voice that sounded very old.
“Yes,” I had to answer.
She looked down at her own swollen hands and rubbed them together, as if in pain. “Just don’t ever let this happen to you,” she said.

Billie’s addiction took her life when she was just 44. In interviews with Etta after she had finally detoxed she admits she thought of this encounter with Billie quite often when she herself was getting high. Ultimately, though, Etta outlived Billie, and had a career beyond her addiction.

At the very end of Rage to Survive Etta talks about her favourite songs on her Billie Holiday cover album:

[Songs] “The Man I Love and Lover Man are pure Billie. They’re lonely songs; they’re longing songs. Yet for all the pain in her voice, she sang them like a woman dead set on surviving.

Maybe that’s one thing about both ladies – Dorothy and Billie – that means the most to me. For all their faults and weak points, there’s also a strength in them that I hope lives in me. The strength us about survival – going on, getting through, making your point, singing your songs in a way where you don’t compromise a damn thing.

Whatever you say about Dorothy, she’s an incredibly strong woman. I’m glad my other isn’t some lil’ ol’ blue-haired lady making apple pies and doilies. I’m glad my mom is hip. And the gutsy spirit of Billie Holiday… well, that spirit will never die.”

And if you want to hear about the monkey dressed as Elvis, the fox on drugs, Satan in the gay bar or the bounty hunters, you’ll have to read the book.