Some Small Bits About the Musical Giant, Etta James

January 17-19 and 24-26, the Renaissance will bring the original musical by Michael Thomas, At Last: An Evening with Etta James, to the stage of Theatre 166.

Condrea Webber as Etta James
Condrea Webber as Etta James

In honor of this world premiere, here are a 10 tidbits about this legendary musical giant.

  1. Etta James is not her real name. Apparently, legendary musician, Johnny Otis switched around her real name of Jamesetta to Etta James and dropped her last name of Hawkins.
  2. "The Mystery Lady." Etta's mother, Dorothy, was only 14 years old when she gave birth. Etta's father was non-existent. Because Dorothy was so young, she often left Etta alone which resulted in Etta being placed with several foster families as she was growing up. Etta later nicknamed her mother "The Mystery Lady" due to her many absences.
  3. Abuse in early life. Etta began singing in her Baptist Church at the age of five. Her music director, however, was abusive and would often hit her in her chest and stomach to sing louder. This led to many problems including bed-wetting when young and later in life performance anxiety.
  4. Sweet 16. James' career began in San Francisco when she was 16 years old where she auditioned for bandleader Johnny Otis. Otis invited James (and her do-wop group) to Los Angeles to make a recording if she could provide him with a signed letter from her mother granting her permission. James wrote the note herself and went to Los Angeles where she recorded "Roll with Me, Henry."
  5. 1972 arrest for heroin possession. In 1972, Etta and her husband, Artis Mills were arrested for heroin possession. Mills "took the fall" and received a 10-year sentence. James received no jail time, but was placed in the Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital for 17 months starting in 1974.
  6. She once criticized Beyoncé. Beyoncé portrayed James in a movie called "Cadillac Records." When Beyonce sang "At Last" at President Obama's Inaugural Ball, James publicly proclaimed her dissatisfaction with Beyoncé's rendition. James' son later said he believed it was because James had Alzheimer's Disease (diagnosed in 2008.)
  7. She opened for the Rolling Stones. In 1979, the Rolling Stones enlisted Etta James to open for them while on tour. According to reports, this is where Etta James picked up her cocaine habit.
  8. James sang at the 1984 Olympics. This was the start of her public renewal, having been away from the music scene for many years due to drug and health issues.
  9. The Grammy's and Hall of Fame. James was nominated for many Grammy Awards throughout her performing years. She won three times: Best Jazz Vocal Performance for Mystery Lady - Songs of Billie Holiday (1994), Best Contemporary Blues Album - Let's Roll (2003), and for Best Traditional Blues Album - Blues to the Bone (2004). In 2003, she received A Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy's and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
  10. Death. Etta James died on January 20, 2012, just days before her 74th birthday due to leukemia. Stevie Wonder and Christina Aguilera both performed tributes to her at her funeral. The Reverend Al Sharpton presided over the service and read a note from President Obama, who said that James would be remembered for her voice and music that transcended genres.