Etta James has become a household name, known for her powerful, soulful voice and hits such as “At Last.” Though James’ voice rings with the joy of her music, the story behind the singer is not necessarily a happy one. Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story, is an autobiography by James with the help of David Ritz. It details the fast-paced, wild and often heartbreaking story of James’ life, both personally and musically. Her tale is one that encompasses themes of racism and gender identity; she speaks of her experiences as a black woman performing in the South in the 50s and 60s, on her friendships with gay men and drag queens, and on her strained romantic relationships with the men in her life. One of the most pressing topics in the book, the prevalence of drugs (particularly heroin) in the jazz/blues scene through the second half of the 20th century. The intersection of these topics – race, gender, sexuality, class, substance abuse, jazz and blues – shape the contours of James’s hectic, fascinating life.
Blues has blurred the lines of genre, sharing some characteristics with other genres such as jazz, soul, and R&B, but also retaining some level of autonomy. Etta James touches on this question of genre as she relays her life story. Her singing career began as a child with her belting out gospel solos in church, guided by the encouragement of her gay pastor, James Earl Hines (throughout the book, James expresses her respect and gratitude for the gay and queer individuals in her life, but none more so than Professor Hines). James’s biological mother, a troubled and troublesome character named Dorothy, would spend her whole life encouraging her daughter to sing jazz in the style of women like Billie Holiday, a “refined” and “sophisticated” sound. Though James had a deep reverence for artists like Holiday, her stylistic interests were rooted elsewhere. Influenced by the tumultuous nature of her childhood and the support of her friends, James took to singing Doo-Wop and R&B with a group of her friends that soon came to be known as “the Creolettes.” “We were project girls imitating the young rhythm and blues of the time, but we were also deep into jazz” (41). Through the course of her career (and not always in her control or her best interest), James would go on to sing everything from jazz to blues to rock n roll. Towards the end of the book, she expresses her surprise and somewhat reluctance at being inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in the 1990s:
“I was glad. I feel like I have a place in the history of rock n roll. Honors are nice. But the
truth is that I’m of two minds about these things. Part of me is thrilled to be recognized,
but another part resents the lily-white institution that sends down its proclamations from
on high. They decide who is rock and roll and who isn’t; they decide who was important
and who wasn’t” (256).
James’s eclectic pursuit of genres wasn’t always her decision to make. She describes her numerous relationships with record labels, producers, and artists, each of which wanted a piece of her talent and wanted to mold that piece to suit their own interest. Genre is important in James’s life, but her quote about the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame reveals another crucial element to her life story: the impact of her race on her outlook and her experiences.
James discusses the ways in which her race affected her career, and some crucial moments in which she truly realized the brutal force of racism. Growing up in Los Angeles projects in the 1940s, James was surrounded constantly by people who weren’t white. Sure, she still experienced racism in some ways – in fact, her lighter complexion was often something she was teased about by other black children – but it wasn’t until her career took off and she began touring the country did the brutal reality of anti-Black racism set in for her. She describes a situation on tour once in Texas, when she was traveling with several black male musicians in a car. One man, Floyd Dixon, stopped and asked a patrolman for directions. The patrolman misread James’s lighter complexion and questioned if she was a white woman traveling with Black men, a serious offense in Texas at that time. The patrolman was outraged, asking again and again “is she a n****r?” After several moments of defiance, James gave in and replied. “Yeah, I’m a black woman.” (83). This would not be the last time James’s race would cause conflict with the police, particularly in southern states. It was touring and traveling that exposed her to racism in this way, and revealed to her the true tension between white and black American citizens.
Something that surprised me about James’s autobiography was her vivid descriptions of substance abuse. Drugs were heavily intermingled with the jazz and blues scenes in the latter half of the 20th century, a fact that is known but perhaps not spoken of as often as it should be. James discusses how heroin (among other drugs) became the focus of her life, overpowering her love for music, her friends, and even her children. Though the drugs never affected the quality of her singing, they certain affected her attitude and approach towards music. She expresses in the book that she almost wishes the drugs had affected her voice, so that she may have had more of an incentive to give them up. But even that might not have been enough to deter her from her habit. Reading this autobiography gave me a harsh insight into the profound influence of heroin on blues and jazz musicians, particularly in the 1960s and 70s.
Rage to Survive was indeed a tale of survival. Etta James’s story, especially in her own words, is a wild ride and intriguing to learn about. Though most of her life was plagued by hardship, she managed to make a successful career out of her raw talent and her passion. Her story is one of determination, and yet also of the grip of heavy drugs on a person’s life. She talks about issues in the music industry that are still incredibly relevant, such as the control of male artists and producers over female artists’ work or the racial imbalance in popular music. There are certainly lessons to be drawn from the book – but it also a vivid and entertaining read, and highly recommended for anyone even remotely interested in Etta James.