ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
It was rumored that Etta Jamesone of the greatest interpreters of blues, jazz
and soulmade some unflattering comments about Beyonces 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 Im singing blues, Etta James once said, Im singing life.
Theres 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
* * * * *
Etta James Dies at 73; Voice Behind At LastPeter Keepnews20 January 2012Etta 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 Millers 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
* * * * *
Etta James, R.I.P.Ben Greenman20 January 2012The 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 Berrys 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. Jamess 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 Coopers 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
* * * * *
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)
* * * * *
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 hearts 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 poemSympathyby Paul Lawrence Dunbar to the great poet and novelist Maya Angelo. They confuse Dunbars poem with Angelos 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 Johnsons Gods 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 newthat 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 musican aspersion that was not only inaccurate but racist in content. The conflict between Cab and one of the founders of bopDizzy Gillespiewas said to have gotten so heated that Dizzy stabbed Cab in the ass partly because of Cabs comments about his musicor 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 Jamesone of the greatest interpreters of blues, jazz and soulmade some unflattering comments about Beyonces 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 dont think that she could have anticipated the minor firestorm that her performanceparticularly 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 Franklins 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 friendsand 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 Aretheas 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 Artsof 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 Beyonces talent, I could not help but remember Marvin Gayes stirring rendition of the National Anthem during the playoffs in 1983. As I listened to Beyonce surrounded by tens of thousands of Americans, Dunbars 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 meincluding Beyonceknew why the caged bird sings. Dunbars 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 Beyonces 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. Marvins 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 Marvins 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, Beyonces 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 Marvins anthem could only be sung by a generation where promise was denied. To say that Beyonces 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 changedthat their day has been overshadowed by more current events. Such an admission will be painfuleven 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 Americaneven to the broader American culture. The producers of Beyonces 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 Beyoncea relatively newcomer to African American popular musiccould 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 rolefar 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? Wasnt she a pop star who successfully portrayed one of jazzs 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 Rosss performance of Billys 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 talentBeyonce has more than enough of thisbut 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 Holidays Good Morning Heartache or Aint Nobodys 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 Beyonces recording did not know thisthey 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 respectgiving props all they way aroundcan each generation approach the other. And in the idiom of a great jazz master, nows 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!
* * * * *
“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.
* * * * *
#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane
#10 – Covenant: A Thriller by Brandon Massey
#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva by Ashley and JaQuavis
#12 – Don’t Ever Tell by Brandon Massey
#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide by Ntozake Shange
#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree
#15 – Homemade Loves by J. California Cooper
#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper
#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber
#18 – Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare
#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King
#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey
#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe
#22 Thug Matrimony by Wahida Clark
#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark
#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber
#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter
#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson
#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History by Ahati N. N. Toure
#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley
#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell
#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit by RM Johnson
#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins
#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell
#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard
#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris
#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice
#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields
#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class by Lisa B. Thompson
* * * * *
By Tony Horwitz
Plotted in secret, launched in the dark, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was a pivotal moment in U.S. history. But few Americans know the true story of the men and women who launched a desperate strike at the slaveholding South. Now, Midnight Rising portrays Brown’s uprising in vivid color, revealing a country on the brink of explosive conflict. Brown, the descendant of New England Puritans, saw slavery as a sin against America’s founding principles. Unlike most abolitionists, he was willing to take up arms, and in 1859 he prepared for battle at a hideout in Maryland, joined by his teenage daughter, three of his sons, and a guerrilla band that included former slaves and a dashing spy. On October 17, the raiders seized Harpers Ferry, stunning the nation and prompting a counterattack led by Robert E. Lee. After Brown’s capture, his defiant eloquence galvanized the North and appalled the South, which considered Brown a terrorist. The raid also helped elect Abraham Lincoln, who later began to fulfill Brown’s dream with the Emancipation Proclamation, a measure he called “a John Brown raid, on a gigantic scale.”
* * * * *
By Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer
American democracy is informed by the 18th centurys most cutting edge thinking on society, economics, and government. Weve learned some things in the intervening 230 years about self interest, social behaviors, and how the world works. Now, authors Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer argue that some fundamental assumptions about citizenship, society, economics, and government need updating. For many years the dominant metaphor for understanding markets and government has been the machine. Liu and Hanauer view democracy not as a machine, but as a garden. A successful garden functions according to the inexorable tendencies of nature, but it also requires goals, regular tending, and an understanding of connected ecosystems. The latest ideas from science, social science, and economicsthe cutting-edge ideas of todaygenerate these simple but revolutionary ideas: (The economy is not an efficient machine. Its an effective garden that need tending. Freedom is responsibility. Government should be about the big what and the little how. True self interest is mutual interest.
* * * * *
By Melissa V. Harris-Perry
According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless Mammys behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own familys needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.
* * * * *
From The World and Africa, 1965
* * * * *
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
online through PayPal
* * * * *
Browse all issues
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
posted 26 March 2009