Etta James: The Caged Bird Sings

Etta James: The Caged Bird Sings


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



It was rumored that Etta James—one of the greatest interpreters of blues, jazz

and soul—made some unflattering comments about Beyonce’s performance

and the recording of James signature recording: “At Last.”



Remembering Etta James


Compiled by Rudolph Lewis


Hers was a difficult life. The legendary singer, who died this morning at the age of 73 after a long struggle with leukemia, was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938, to an unwed 14-year-old girl, and her life was marked by drug addiction and emotional volatility. Through it all, James rose to become one of the most influential and admired singers of the second half of the 20th century. . . . 

 “When I’m singing blues,” Etta James once said, “I’m singing life.”

 “There’s a lot going on in Etta James’ voice,” Bonnie Raitt told Rolling Stone in 2008. “A lot of pain, a lot of life but, most of all, a lot of strength. She can be so raucous and down one song, and then break your heart with her subtlety and finesse the next.” Her greatest hit came in 1961, with the soulful ballad “At Last.”—OpenCulture

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Etta James Dies at 73; Voice Behind ‘At Last’—Peter Keepnews—20 January 2012—Etta James [January 25, 1938 – January 20, 2012], whose powerful, versatile and emotionally direct voice could enliven the raunchiest blues as well as the subtlest love songs, most indelibly in her signature hit, “At Last,” died on Friday morning in Riverside, Calif. She was 73.

Her manager, Lupe De Leon, said that the cause was complications of leukemia. Ms. James, who died at Riverside Community Hospital, had been undergoing treatment for some time for a number of conditions, including leukemia and dementia. She also lived in Riverside.

Ms. James was not easy to pigeonhole. She is most often referred to as a rhythm and blues singer, and that is how she made her name in the 1950s with records like “Good Rockin’ Daddy.” She is in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.

She was also comfortable, and convincing, singing pop standards, as she did in 1961 with “At Last,” which was written in 1941 and originally recorded by Glenn Miller’s orchestra. And among her four Grammy Awards (including a lifetime-achievement honor in 2003) was one for best jazz vocal performance, which she won in 1995 for the album Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday.

Regardless of how she was categorized, she was admired. Expressing a common sentiment, Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote in 1990 that she had “one of the great voices in American popular music, with a huge range, a multiplicity of tones and vast reserves of volume.”

For all her accomplishments, Ms. James had an up-and-down career, partly because of changing audience tastes but largely because of drug problems. She developed a heroin habit in the 1960s; after she overcame it in the 1970s, she began using cocaine. She candidly described her struggles with addiction and her many trips to rehab in her autobiography, Rage to Survive, written with David Ritz (1995).—NYTimes

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Etta James, R.I.P.—Ben Greenman—20 January 2012—The death of Etta James on Friday, at the age of seventy-three, came as no surprise. She had been suffering from dementia and leukemia for the past two years, had not performed in public for longer, and had, upon the release of The Dreamer last November, announced that it would be her final album. . . . In 1960, at the still tender age of twenty-two, James moved from Modern Records to Chess, got involved with the songwriter and singer Harvey Fuqua, and launched the second phase of her career. There were ballads (“All I Could Do Was Cry”), duets (“If I Can’t Have You”), guest appearances (she sings backup on Chuck Berry’s “Almost Grown” and “Back in the USA”), but her most successful early moment was the title track of her début album: “At Last,” which was written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren and recorded by Glenn Miller, among others. James’s shimmering, torchy version made the song a modern standard, not to mention a staple in commercials.

James recorded for many years, in many styles, some more successful than others. For most of that time, her power as a vocalist was never in question; rather, it was how that power was deployed. Her Muscle Shoals recordings from the late sixties (“Tell Mama,” “I’d Rather Go Blind”) show her at her best, as does “Deep in the Night,” a 1978 album produced by Jerry Wexler that included covers of rock songs like the Eagles’ “Take It to the Limit” and Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed.” There were highlights of almost inexpressible power, like her 1964 live album Etta James Rocks the House, perhaps the rawest album ever recorded by a female R. & B. singer, and her barn-burning duet with Sugar Pie DeSanto, “In the Basement.”—NewYorker

Etta James on You Tube

Etta James—Seven Days Fool (1964) / Etta James and Sugar Pie DeSanto—In the Basement (1966)

Etta James—I’d Rather Go Blind (1968) / Etta James Take It to the Limit (1980) / Etta James—Body and Soul (1994) 


Etta James—Almost Persuaded /  Etta James—Damn Your Eyes (1988)  /  Etta James—Pushover (1963)


Etta James—Misty Blue (2011) / Etta James with Harvey Fuqua—If I Can’t Have You (1960)


Etta James—Lovin’ Arms  / Etta James—I Worship the Ground You Walk On


Etta James Performance Directed by Jonathan X / Etta James—Sugar on the Floor

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All I Could Do Was Cry

                            Sung by Etta James


I heard church bells ringing I heard a choir singing I saw my love walk down the aisle On her finger he placed a ring Oh, I saw them holding hands She was standing there with my man I heard them promise “Till death do us part” Each word was a pain in my heart All I could do, all I could do was cry (cry, cry, cry) All I could do was cry (cry, cry, cry) I was losing the man that I loved And all I could do was cry (cry, cry, cry) Yeah and now the wedding’s over Rice, rice has been thrown over their heads For them life has just begun But mine is at an end All, all I could do, all I could do was cry (cry, cry, cry) All I could do was cry (cry, cry, cry) I was losing the man that I loved (cry, cry, cry) And all I could do was cry (cry, cry, cry)

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Etta James: The Caged Bird Sings

Notes on Generational Conflict in African American Music

By Amin Sharif


I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

When his wing is bruised and bosom sore,

When he beats his bars and would be free;

It is not a carol of glee,

But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,

But a plea that upward to heaven he flings—

I know why the caged bird sings.

Today many young black folk attribute this poem—“Sympathy”—by Paul Lawrence Dunbar to the great poet and novelist Maya Angelo. They confuse Dunbar’s poem with Angelo’s best selling autobiography, Why the Caged Bird Sings. This is  perhaps too be expected by a generation that is not, as older generations were, steeped in African American classical poetry and fiction. The present generation barely knows a stanza of James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombone or his Prodigal Son. But they can tell you that Fifty Cent is worth 150 million dollars. Much of this is not their fault, crowded conditions in black inner city classrooms force teachers to prioritize and musings about black poetry may not be as important as keeping order in these volatile and sometimes violent classrooms.

There is the internet. And it is filled with pertinent information about Maya Angelo, Dunbar, and countless other African American poets. But I guess it is hard to find time for black poetry when one has to update his Facebook page or Tweeter a friend. Prior generations find it ironic that today so many children have access to so much knowledge but do not seemed to be concerned with it. While those who had only limited access to knowledge in their youth are hungry for it. 

It is that these latter generations have been divorced from so much of their history that there exists a gulf of misunderstanding between themselves and their elders. But some African American scholars would say that this problem is nothing new—that there has been a chasm between older and younger generations since the days of slavery. Our history does after all refer to times when younger blacks called for radical change when older blacks wanted to take a more cautious approach to the problem of social injustice. But whether the culture we speak of is African American or not, it is generally agreed upon that older generations tend to be more conservative than their younger counterparts in any given society. Yet no place has the chasm between older generations of African Americans and their more progressive descendants been opened more widely than in the field of black popular music.

The great bandleader Cab Calloway once called bop Chinese music—an aspersion that was not only inaccurate but racist in content. The conflict between Cab and one of the founders of bop—Dizzy Gillespie—was said to have gotten so heated that Dizzy stabbed Cab in the ass partly because of Cab’s comments about his music—or that is how the legend has been recorded. Younger jazz musicians openly called Louis Armstrong, the all time greatest jazz luminary, an Uncle Tom for his stage antics. When Armstrong passed away, it is said that the Dizzy cried out, “Long Live the King! The King is dead!” I have cited these examples not because I wish to degrade the memory of these great musicians but to show how deeply generational differences can reach. Cab, Dizzy, and Armstrong have all secured their place in African American history no matter what statements they made. And we are after all talking about men not gods.

Today, we find the same kind of generational antagonism emerging between the fans of Beyonce and Etta James. Beyonce is a talented and beautiful young black woman who was chosen to play Etta James in a film called Cadillac Records. It was rumored that Etta James—one of the greatest interpreters of blues, jazz and soul—made some unflattering comments about Beyonce’s performance and the recording of James signature recording: “At Last.” I will not dignify the comments by mentioning them here. I will say that if the accounts I have heard are accurate that Etta has grounds for criticizing the way she is portrayed in the film and even more grounds for objecting to the recording.   

Whether these allegations are true or not makes little difference. What is important is that once again we have another source of generational conflict. I encountered the same type of conflict when I offered “The Assassination of Cool” to ChickenBones for publication. Younger readers were not pleased with it. Older readers were more sympathetic to my position. With some deference to Beyonce, I don’t think that she could have anticipated the minor firestorm that her performance—particularly her recording of Etta James’ signature ballad “At Last” would cause. This song has long held a special place in the history of black music having been recorded by the phenomenal Dinah Washington, Etta James, and even by Sir Walter Jackson. And although Beyonce is herself a phenomenal performer, she simply did not carry the song off very well.

Yet Beyonce is not the first young black singer to struggle with the demanding musical genres of jazz and blues. Most serious jazz fans well remember Aretha Franklin’s somewhat ill advised foray into the genre. In 1986, Franklin recorded Jazz to Soul. And while it got good reviews in general, there were not many hardcore jazz fans who were impressed with the recording. Indeed, I was hard pressed to find a copy of this recording owned by any of my friends—and all consider themselves to be serious jazz enthusiasts and collectors.  

The truth is that there were cuts on the album that were handled well by Aretha. Most, however, were not. Too many cuts sounded like a soul singer attempting to sing jazz. Consequently, the recording is believed by many to pale in comparison with Arethea’s Soul based recordings. Of course, Aretha was young in 1986. Today, she could probably handle an aria from an Italian opera. She is an established diva now and a Grand Dame of the Arts—of this there is no doubt.

That Beyonce is a most talented singer was evidenced by her stirring rendition of the National Anthem on the Mall in Washington, DC. I was in the crowd so I can speak of it first hand. While I was very much impressed with Beyonce’s talent, I could not help but remember Marvin Gaye’s stirring rendition of the National Anthem during the playoffs in 1983. As I listened to Beyonce surrounded by tens of thousands of Americans, Dunbar’s poem came back to me. And I asked myself what was the difference between what Marvin did years ago and what was occurring before my eyes at that moment. I wondered if any of the celebrants that surrounded me—including Beyonce—knew why the caged bird sings. Dunbar’s caged bird being an obvious metaphor for black oppression and resistance during the decades of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

I do not want to diminish in any way the impact of Beyonce’s rendition of the National Anthem. I do wish to point out that it differs in quality from the one that Marvin Gaye sung at the playoffs. Marvin’s rendition was a candle held up during the midnight of oppression. It was rung from a thousand broken promises and was scrolled on the back of a check marked “insufficient funds.” His version of the anthem rose up from the cotton fields of Mississippi and was brought to life by brothers and sisters in urban centers like Harlem and Detroit. It was a contradictory, bitter blues and not a “carol of glee.” For the back beat of Marvin’s song were the barking dogs set on Freedom Riders. And, its chorus was shouted out for all to hear . . . What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now! Back in the day, this was why the caged bird sung and “beat his bars and would be free.”

In contrast, Beyonce’s rendering was a candle held up at a time when the long darkness of night had just given way to a new dawn. Her anthem was a celebratory confirmation that America was willing to now cash its bad check. It confirmed that if the cage bird can sing a plaintive blues during its confinement that its song is all the sweeter when the bars of its cage are flung open and it can fly “upward to heaven.” Her anthem could only be sung by a generation where promise is possible just as Marvin’s anthem could only be sung by a generation where promise was denied. To say that Beyonce’s anthem was not glorious would be hypocritical and ingenuous. Her anthem was a song that every black man, woman, and child born under the burning cross and bullwhip longed to sing but could not.

It is here that we find the rub that separates the older generations of African Americans from their children. For the elders see in so many young people no acknowledgement of what it meant to be a “caged bird.” There are no more signs that say “For Coloreds Only.” There are no governors standing in the doors of southern universities crying, “Segregation now and forever!”  A new language has emerged among the young that is at time exclusionary of the concerns of their older parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Young people today respond to tropes that are born out of new conditions. The symbolism contained in their language grows out of decades of never knowing racism in its most vicious form. Consequently, they have never heard the dirges and hymns uttered by black men and women sold on the slave block or humiliated on a public street. This is not to say that recent generations have no difficulties to traverse. But what they are called upon to traverse today is starkly different from what their elders were called on to traverse yesterday.

The fact is that both elder and more recent generations of African Americans suffer from a form of generational blindness. The elder generation has yet to acknowledge that conditions on the ground have changed—that their day has been overshadowed by more current events. Such an admission will be painful—even heartbreaking for them.

On the other hand, younger generation of African Americans do not seem to have the ability to recognize the sacred space carved out in music, poetry, and fiction by elders whose artistic achievement was stifled at every turn. If an idea or concept is not new or hip(hop), it is of little value to them. Yet it is precisely the nexus from which these new concepts arise that make them relevant or irrelevant to every African American—even to the broader American culture. The producers of Beyonce’s recording had only to ask an elder if it was a good idea for her to record “At Last.” And they would have been told that it was a very bad idea.

Why would anyone think that Beyonce—a relatively newcomer to African American popular music—could be compared in anyway with the great Etta James? James is the winner of four Grammys and seventeen Blues Music Awards. She has been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame. How could Beyonce carry that kind of baggage and not stagger under its apparent weight? Perhaps, the producers of the film and recording thought they could do with Beyonce and Etta what the producers of Ray did with Jamie Fox and Ray Charles? If this was their intention then they were dead wrong. Fox had years of practice invoking the attitudes and mannerisms of Ray Charles. Beyonce had perhaps months to prepare herself to play her role—far too less a time to understand a woman as complex as Etta James.

What about Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, these wise producers might ask? Wasn’t she a pop star who successfully portrayed one of jazz’s luminaries on screen? Again Diana Ross was born in the era of (the caged bird) segregation. She heard Billy on the radio, listened to her records and might have even seen her perform. And while it must be recognized that Ross’s performance of Billy’s work is stylized and the storyline of the movie is mostly a fancy.  She could and did bring her experiences as a black woman who had lived under segregation to the table. Diana Ross most certainly knew why the caged bird sings.

In contrast, Beyonce had no such experience to bring to the table when she recorded “At Last.” The prerequisites of racism and segregation that conditioned Dinah Washington and Etta James so as to be able to sing and interpret the lyric of “At Last” simply do not exist today. What the recording of “At Last” lacked was not so much vocal talent—Beyonce has more than enough of this—but a feeling engendering another place and another time. It is clear that this was not taken into account when

“At Last” was recorded. And if Etta James has anything to object to, it was that her contemporary had no real understanding of how to approach the song.  Beyonce did not know that “At Last” was not just any love  song. “At Last” is a searing blues that speaks of both the particular loneliness of a black woman and the general isolation that segregation imposed on all black love affairs during that period. Anyone that has ever listened to Billy Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache” or “Ain’t Nobody’s Business but My Own” can dig where I am coming from.

“At Last” in the end is all about the traversing of black sacred space by younger artists. Should this be done with reverence or in answer to a Hollywood whim? “At Last” is literally and figuratively about why the caged bird sings. And in the lexicon of the street-if the producers of Beyonce’s recording did not know this—they had better ask  somebody over the age of fifty the next time they attempt it!

Yet beyond all of this generational conflict is a real chance to bridge the chasm that exists between older and younger generations. These are our children and we are their parents. That we can even speak of a chasm between them and ourselves in any area is a major tragedy.  I have no problem saying that our children are problematic and in the next breathe announcing my love for them. Our children are brilliant, funny, and rebellious. But they have achieved goals that my and prior generations of African Americans could only dream of. My son, Ahmad, holds a Ph.D. My goal in life was simply to survive the madness of racism and occasionally scribble down my thoughts for the consideration of others. But Ahmad and I are both tied to each other by bonds deeper than just our relationship in blood and love. We are tied together by our relationship to values that orient our lives on a deeper level. These values emanate for both of us from a shared culture and a shared history.  

If we listen carefully to the renditions of the National Anthem sung by Marvin Gaye and Beyonce, we can find a unifying factor between them. Each version can be taken collectively as the first stanzas of a new emerging National Anthem. The more contemporary stanza of this new National Anthem sung by Beyonce rejoices in a new, brighter day. The stanza sung by Marvin Gaye stands to remind us of the dark nights we shared in anticipation of this new day. Each rendition in its own way states the hopes, fears, and dreams of the present and its antecedent members. Each rendition sums up the condition of place and time that gives it cultural and historical relevance. And at this time in African American history, it would be foolish to celebrate our collective joy without fully acknowledging our collective pain.

If elders within the African American community wish to be heard then they must listen to their young men and women. If our young men and women wish to be listened to, they must take heed to what their elders say. What it comes down to is old fashion respect. Young folks must recognize and treat with dignity the black sacred space that was seized by their elders, like Etta James, with so much pain and suffering. At the same time, elders must acknowledge that young people are expanding that black sacred space by their own efforts and in their own manner. Elders can not control the future no more than young folk can reinterpret the past. Only with mutual respect—giving props all they way around—can each generation approach the other. And in the idiom of a great jazz master, now’s the time for us to move forward together. Now is the time for us to embrace each other and not stand apart.

Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906)


    I KNOW what the caged bird feels, alas!         When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;     When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,     And the river flows like a stream of glass;         When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,     And the faint perfume from its chalice steals —     I know what the caged bird feels!

    I know why the caged bird beats his wing         Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;     For he must fly back to his perch and cling     When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;         And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars     And they pulse again with a keener sting —     I know why he beats his wing!

    I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,         When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—     When he beats his bars and he would be free;     It is not a carol of joy or glee,         But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,     But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —     I know why the caged bird sings!

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“Etta Hawkins James” was born in Los Angeles, California, to an unmarried 14-year-old African-American, Dorothy Hawkins. She claimed that her mother told her that her father was a white pool player, Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone. She received her first professional vocal training at the age of five from James Earle Hines, musical director of the Echoes of Eden choir, at the St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles. 

 Etta James “I’d Rather Go Blind”  and Beyonce “I’d Rather Go Blind

Etta James—Something’s Got a Hold On Me

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posted 26 March 2009




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