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A life singing the blues

At 64, Etta James is happy to be onstage

By Denise Quan (Daily News from Entertainment Weekly)

Etta James singing one of her most recognized songs,
Etta James singing one of her most recognized songs, "At Last" at the Playboy Jazz Festival. James will perform at the 2002 Monterey Jazz Festival as part of the festival's "Women of the Blues" salute.

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RIVERSIDE, California (CNN) -- Rarely can you attend a wedding without hearing "At Last." And you can't hear "At Last" without thinking of Etta James, the soulful belter who cut the definitive version of that song.

On stage, she sings as though possessed -- shimmying and gyrating in her seat, caressing every note like a long-lost love. But sitting poolside at her sun-kissed home in southern California, Etta James is the picture of decorum.

"They said that Etta James is still vulgar," the legendary singer says in her smoky contralto. "I said, 'Oh, how dare 'em say I'm still real vulgar! I'm vulgar because I dance in the chair?' What would they want me to do? Want me to just be still or something like that? I gotta do something."

And so, at 64, Etta James still dances, despite two bad knees and a life born of the blues.

"Most of the songs I sing, they have that blue feeling to it. They have that sorry feeling. And I don't know what I'm sorry about," she says, shaking her head and smiling. "I don't!"

The rhythm-and-blues legend, also known for such classic tunes as "Something's Got a Hold on Me" and "I'd Rather Go Blind," takes the stage Saturday at the 45th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival.

Singing in church

Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, by age 5, she was a vocal prodigy, singing about salvation in a church in the city's South Central neighborhood. As word spread about the little girl with the big voice, the only person who never offered praise was Etta's own teen-age mother, Dorothy Hawkins. The two have always had a contentious relationship.

A young Etta James and her mother Dorothy Hawkins are pictured in this undated family photo.
A young Etta James and her mother Dorothy Hawkins are pictured in this undated family photo.

"The first time she saw me perform was at the Hollywood Bowl. It must have been three years ago," James says. "And it was strange, because she would never, never go see me.

"But I remember her coming backstage, and we were both kind of making up in the mirror. She looked at me in the mirror and says, 'You know what? You can really sing!' For your own mother to come in, and stand flat-flooted and tell you something like that -- you know, you can't make that up. Never, never."

Dorothy Hawkins died this past May. But she outlived the man rumored to be James' father -- the enigmatic pool shark, Minnesota Fats. James met him once, in 1987, when she tracked him to the Heritage Hotel in Nashville and rang his room.

"He says, 'I'll be in the lobby,' " she says, pronouncing lobby as 'laahhhhby.' "He talked like that. 'I'll be in the lobby with one of my dames.' He had a vibe like me. As far as me knowing that's my father? I don't know. But he seemed like he was.

"When he passed, he sent me a beautiful golden watch that hung on his clothes that had his name on it. And he sent me a letter, and told me that he wanted me to write a song about him and stuff, which I never did. But I often thought about that."

James looks down wistfully at her hands. Despite a perfect French manicure, they're large, masculine hands -- just like those of Minnesota Fats. Then her head snaps back up. "Oh! And he gave us a picture - and the picture looked just like Donto, my oldest son. It was just like Donto."

Happy to be singing the blues

Donto and Sametto -- James' two 30-something sons -- are the rhythm section of her band, Donto on drums and Sametto on bass. They'll both be with her as she performs at Monterey. James says she brings them on the road to keep an eye on them. But in reality, they keep an eye on her.

When James inherited a photo of pool shark Minnosota Fats, the man alleged to be her father, she was amazed at the likeness of the photo to her oldest son Donto.
When James inherited a photo of pool shark Minnosota Fats, the man alleged to be her father, she was amazed at the likeness of the photo to her oldest son Donto.

Donto is clearly amused by his mother, and begins to recount seeing the men who would come to call on his mother after a gig. James interrupts. "Wait a minute! Guys used to come and ask me if I want to have a drink?"

"Well, I don't know about a drink," Donto says.

"Oh. They might ask me if I wanted something' else!" James responds. Everyone laughs -- everyone except for James' 7-year-old granddaughter, Karissia, who grimaces disapprovingly. After all, her grandmother has already told her countless times to "Stay away from boys!"

James has a Grammy, a string of classic hits and a 1993 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame under her ever-shrinking belt (James recently lost 100 pounds; her doctor wants her to shed 50 more). But she's also had her share of broken hearts, broken men, and thankfully, a broken two-decade addiction to heroin. This is one woman who has seen it all.

Her eyes cloud over, and her voice softens. "I can only go there, go there again, be there, do that again -- some things I just won't do again," she says. "But the other things, I will."

Maybe that's why she sings what she sings in that unmistakable manner. Maybe that's why she dances. James herself doesn't even know for sure. But this she knows: She'll always be happiest singing the blues.

"I can't be talking about the moon and the stars. It has to be something heavy. Something heavy that I can say, 'That's right,' " she says, touching her hand to her head. "That is right!"



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