“You guys know your president, right? You know, the one with the big ears. Yeah, wait a minute, he ain't my president, he might be yours. I tell you that woman he had singing for him, singing my song, she gonna get her ass whipped. The great Beyoncé. Now like I said, she ain't mine. I can't stand Beyoncé! She had no business up there singing. Singing on a big ol', big ol' president day and going be singing my song that I've been singing forever.”—Etta James, to her audience at the Paramount Theater, Seattle, Jan. 28, 2009The cover of the 1964 album Etta James Rocks the House captures James performing at the New Era club in Nashville, where it was recorded. In the prominent center image, she is all sweaty and menacing in a spectacular combination of bouffant wig, heavy cat-eye makeup, poofy pink party dress and a hospital emergency-room bandage wrapped tightly around her right hand, index finger thrust accusingly at the audience.
When I plucked it from a bin in 1985, the cover image suggested the sincerity of the album's title, so I bought it, took it home and put it on the turntable.
Even with a head full of wine, smoke, phone numbers, dread and not enough sense or sensitivity, I knew I'd stumbled on a classic, and the fact that it gave me entry into the sexy, dangerous world of a black Nashville nightclub, where I could never have gone even if I had been alive at the time, was half the thrill. The other half was James' ridiculous, raw power as a singer. Etta would protect me. She'd bust her other hand for me.
I've put a needle on that record probably more times than Etta put a needle in her arm back in the dark days of her addiction. Rocks the House made me a huge fan, and I've stayed that way. Seventy-one now and without the vocal strength of her youth, she can still sing with an unmatched, unaffected emotional sincerity.
Even if you don't know her music well, I'm sure you heard about James' onstage banter at the Paramount Theater in Seattle last week. Introducing the 1930s jazz standard “At Last,” her version of which made her and the song famous to a new generation, she poked fun at the young superstar who plays her in the new film Cadillac Records and at the president who chose her to sing the song instead of James at his inauguration.
How could you not have heard about it? “This is not a joke: 71-year-old Etta James actually threatened to beat the crap out of Beyoncé Knowles—and it's caught all [sic] on tape!” reported the insipid webloid TMZ, typifying the sensationalistic wildfire-spread of the hype and wild-eyed condemnation of James as an unhinged, bitter, washed-up diva.
What trite overreaction to a comical diss!
The next day, James had to explain that she was joking around. After half a century performing onstage as the consummate blueswoman—sassy, irrepressible, ornery, foul-mouthed, boastful, lustful, prideful, emotional, defiant, sly and, most of all, funny—endearing herself to her fans while largely ignored by everybody else, James was ill-prepared for the lynch mob that is the Internet gossip mill.
The line between blues and comedy has always been thin. The nightclub is a place where black performers have long felt free to take outrageous risks to the delight of their audiences: Consider that Redd Foxx was not only a comedian before Sanford and Son; he was the funniest blues shouter on the urban theater circuit (pejoratively known as the chitlin' circuit), where a 14-year-old James also launched her career, singing the dirty ditty “Roll with Me Henry” without her mother's permission.
The roots of black insult humor is in the African-American tradition called “the dozens,” which threads from blues through hip-hop—a type of raw survival humor used to defuse conflict that traces back to the mother continent.
I witnessed this sort of refined roughness for the first time when, at age 21, I took my young white self to the now defunct Club Saxx in Southeast San Diego, determined to see and hear the great blues singer and Tony Award-winning Broadway star Linda Hopkins in person. She was drunk, lewd and never made it through a whole song. The black patrons seemed less shocked to see a long-haired white kid than I was shocked to see them revel in Hopkins' casual devilry.
Now that everything anybody does or says in public is monitored by hundreds of microphones and cameras, there are no more insider cultures, no isolated events.
This can be a good thing, as in the surfacing of cell-phone videos taken of the New Year's Eve murder of Oscar Grant III by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, which led to his arrest.
But what if it also means that one provocative moment in the life of a man devoted to community service like The Rev. Jeremiah Wright gets lifted from its black church context and villainized for the sake of a failing political campaign? What if it means Etta James can't joke around about the size of the president's ears or wanting to whip Beyoncé's ass without having to issue a formal apology?
“Nobody was getting mad at me in Seattle. … They were all laughing, and it was funny,” she explained. “Even as a little child, I've always had that comedian kind of attitude…. That's probably what went into it.”
Let's hope this silly kerfuffle doesn't interfere with James' ability to keep feeling free onstage, to sing or say whatever the hell she pleases, to keep rocking the house even if it isn't the damn White House.