The one and only Etta James takes a trip down S.F. memory lane.
By Johnny Ray Huston
ETTA JAMES CAN stand a little rain -- in fact, she likes it. When I reach
her by phone at her home in Riverside, she's enjoying a late-October
downpour. "I'm just looking out the window," she says, her speaking voice
as low and powerfully distinctive as her singing voice, if relatively
sedate. "I have a lot of palm trees in my backyard. I told my yardman, 'I
want it to look real jungle. I want it to look like Acapulco.' "
The yardman obeyed her command -- this is Etta James we're talking about,
people. In fact, he also transplanted some pampas grass from James's Los
Angeles residence. "They are great-big and standing so tall," she says. "I
love those plants, and they're not going away, even though it's raining.
Usually the rain will fall and make the pretty little things fall off."
If they're not strong enough? "Yeah. Now all I need is a couple of monkeys
in the yard and some parrots."
James's voice isn't just a pretty thing; it's a beautiful, strong thing: it
has lasted through the rain and worse. The woman who has left more than one
permanent mark on the history of popular music is coming to San Francisco
this week, in support of her latest album, Blues to the Bone. The visit
presents an excellent opportunity to reminisce, because San Francisco isn't
just any old town to James. It's a place -- in some ways the place -- where
she grew up in the '50s. "Sometimes I feel a little sad [thinking about
those years] because my mother was with me then," James says. "She brought
me there, and I thought San Francisco was so hip. I was a kid. I didn't go
to school half the time. I was a juvenile delinquent."
You were the terror of the Fillmore, I add, and she's quick to agree. "I
lived on Webster, where the apartments have the big windows. My mother used
to buy me stuff from the Army-Navy surplus store. The thing then, if you
were 14 or 15, was to wear those long suit coats, those navy pea coats. We
would put our collars up. We thought we were so baaad. We were gangbangers.
We smoked cigarettes, and we would leave the cigarettes hanging on the
corner of our mouths. One of the girls would have a Rainier beer in her
pocket, and we'd put a straw in it. We had so much fun."
"I was going to a girls' high school then, on Geary between Fillmore and
Steiner," she continues. "That's where they would send all the bad girls.
We would dodge school and get on the Geary streetcar and take it all the
way to the beach and the Great Highway. We'd just get off and go walking."
James refers to this high school only briefly in Rage to Survive
(co-authored with David Ritz), one of the most candid autobiographies I've
ever read. Some of the all-time greats, such as Billie Holiday, have used
autobiography to further build their already formidable mythology. Others,
like Aretha Franklin, have kept their secrets to themselves. James is
precisely the opposite of Franklin (who also worked with Ritz in penning a
book): she remains remarkably honest even when the details aren't
flattering. Sometimes off-color, always colorful, this vibrant candor makes
her all the more likable, and Rage to Survive is an excellent companion to
the uninhibited, blistering vocals on classic James recordings such as "I'd
Rather Go Blind."
On the road as an adult, James and her friend the inimitable Esther
Phillips loved to stay at the Caravan on Polk Street, especially because of
the Chinese restaurants (a passage about Jimi Hendrix's love of Chinese
food is one of Rage to Survive's comic highlights) and delicatessens. A
different San Francisco landmark, one still raging, was host to a pivotal
moment later in James's life, in the mid-'80s. Mention the Stud and James
doesn't miss a beat. "Oh yeah, that time with the demon," she says, with an
offhand conviction that makes it clear that no demon -- even a six-foot,
10-inch one with "balloon pants like tree trunks," as her book describes --
is going to defeat James. "I still liked going there [to the Stud]. I
didn't care if a demon was there. The Stud was so crowded that I couldn't
get to the stage. I was so big then ? I weighed almost 400 pounds. I'd come
around to the side, and the crowd would pick me up and put me on the stage."
After her Stud performances, James -- partying hard at the time -- would
head over to Hamburger Mary's to relax in its upstairs dressing room. "I
loved that dressing room," she says. "I remember one time Lupe [De Leon,
James's manager] came up there, and I was laying on the floor. I was laying
there because I'd gotten so hot and I was getting the air from up under the
door -- you know, if you lay by [an upstairs] door and put your nose down
there, you'll get fresh air, especially the air coming up from the
stairways. Lupe ran up there and shouted, 'What's a matter, Etta, what's a
For the next five days, James was sick with the kind of feverish flu that
brings visions. Her caregivers were a couple named Patrick and Michael.
"They would cook soup for me," she remembers. "I was at Michael's house,
and Patrick didn't like that because he wanted me at his house: 'What are
you doing with Etta up there? Etta was supposed to come to my house, and I
was supposed to take care of her!' He got so mad at Michael that he took a
towel and he set it on fire. He put that burning towel through the [front
gate's] mail chute, and it was sending smoke up to the second-floor window.
I thought that was so exciting."
Another wild moment in the wild life of the one and only Etta James. These
days, James is thinking about a movie version of Rage to Survive, and she's
not the only one -- mid-interview, she casually mentions to a publicist
that Roseanne called her "the other morning" to discuss an adaptation.
"I've heard Motown was thinking about [adapting the book], but you know I
never did get along with Motown, so I'm not going to turn on my word
there," she says. "I've always gotten along with Roseanne. She's nuts, just
like me, and she's got ambition, so I think she could put it together."
The movie would make sense, since Ritz's book Brother Ray is prominently
tied to Taylor Hackford's film version of Ray Charles's life. If anything,
James's book with Ritz makes Brother Ray seem tame. But who on earth could
play the hell-raising, ass-kicking young James? I mention Faith Evans, who
has taken a page or two from James's ferociously glamorous early look. "I
like her," James says. "At first I really thought she would be good [to
play me]. Then I thought Queen Latifah would do good -- she was working on
trying to make a movie of Bessie Smith's life. But I just saw a movie [The
Fighting Temptations] that had Faith in it the other night, and she was a
lot like me."
"If they make a movie of my story," James continues, "I wouldn't worry
about playing myself when I was young, but I would like to play myself as I
get to be older. Nobody can be as bad as me. Nobody else can be Etta James.
I'm so devilish they wouldn't dare."
'SF Jazz Presents: Etta James and the Roots Band,' with Earl Thomas, Sat/6,
8 p.m., Masonic Auditorium, 1111 California, S.F. $25-$60. (415) 788-7353,