My encounter with the music of Etta James constituted something of a rite of passage. I was a white, working-class kid who went to Catholic Youth Organization dances on Friday nights with small dreams, hoping to escape the boredom and sometimes explosive violence in my working-class neighborhood and find an outlet for the erupting and confusing desires that dominated the lives of young boys. The music was generally tame, and almost entirely white. Instead of Little Richard we got Pat Boone; instead of Little Anthony and the Imperials, we got the Beach Boys. When things got risky, we might have heard Carl Perkins or Elvis Presley.
Of course, the CYO was in a solidly white, working class neighborhood that listened to white singers who often stole the music of African American performers and stripped it of any passion, desire, sexuality, or integrity. The nuns patrolled those dances like vultures waiting for their prey to finally die. I can still hear them as they intervened between us as we danced telling us to leave room for the Blessed Virgin Mary. The refrain was repeated over and over again about not letting our bodies touch, and so it went.
As a basketball player at Hope High School, I also had an opportunity to go to parties on weekends with some of my black teammates. The first party I went to was in a basement apartment filled with smoke with bodies twisting, packed together, eyes lowered, dancing, flirting; young people were laughing, kissing and touching each other sweetly, with respect and great warmth, and in the background was Etta James singing “Trust in Me.” That beautiful, husky voice filled the room with sensuality, conflated bodies and desire, and for the first time I found myself dancing without moving my feet. In a moment, sensuality was liberated from the repressive policing that had marked my CYO days. Etta’s music opened a door to new discoveries, friendships, and social relations and certainly a new understanding of what it meant to cross racial barriers free of the hostility that informed my neighborhood. More was at work here than the reclaiming of the body and desire. There was also the reclaiming of a deeper sense of solidarity and social justice. I never looked back after that, and Etta James became for me the musical equivalent of my literary hero James Baldwin.
Being underage, on weekends my high school friends and I could not go to a bar, so we often ended up on the third-floor flat that my parents rented and would drink a few bottles of beer, fire up the 45 rpm record player and listen to Etta. Etta was one of us. She was gritty, from a broken home, lived amid poverty, took drugs, and was hard as nails. Her music never sought to escape from her past, and in spite of the pathos, there was always a sense that with music came an affirmation of desire, struggle and hope. In that neighborhood, the body was all we had and more often than not it was the object of disciplinary repression whether in the schools or in the streets. Etta’s music recast the body as a source of joy, creativity and resistance. With Etta in the background, we talked about politics, women, school, how to beat the horses, sports and our future. After a couple of hours of listening to Etta, we would escape into the night, our heads filled with a musical sensibility and aesthetic that was rarely matched in the house parties we attended.
I never stopped listening to Etta James, not only because her music reminded me of some of the most memorable moments of my youth, but because she flaunted her cultural capital without apologies, combined passion and desire and lived on the edge merging her body and music into a constant reminder of what it meant to ground one’s life in real struggles, disappointments, and hopes. She knew how to affirm rather than compromise both her music and the pathos and hope it embodied. She was a tough and talented lady.
Etta James was also a crossover artist, a border crosser, who helped break down the racist musical barriers that prevailed in the fifties and sixties. She also helped break down the racial barriers in my youth among black, brown and white working-class kids who viewed living in their bodies as an asset rather than a liability. She was a model for courage, for connecting the body to the mind, and her music was always about a world that seemed far more real than the Disnified bleach put out by racist radio stations.
Later in my life, I heard her sing at the Newport Jazz Festival, as well as in Toronto around 2006. When she sang “Fool That I Am,” the sound was beautiful, moving and sensual as it was when I had heard it in my youth. Not everyone recognized her talent and President Obama made the dreadful and revealing mistake of having Beyoncé sing Etta’s signature song, “At Last,” at his inauguration. Etta later admitted she was hurt by the gesture. For me, this was not only an insult but also a sad commentary on how a hyper-consuming, talent flattening society had contributed to erasing a musical giant, or even worse, how Etta’s working-class legacy for middle-class politicians had become too dangerous to associate with.
Etta never bought the whitewash, the cleansing of history, life and memory, and it was reflected in every note she sang. No wonder she was rebuked by a president who later turned risk-free civility into a form of cowardice. She was more than a musical icon, she was a pioneer who pushed the boundaries of music and talent into the murky and complicated mix of a society struggling with racism, inequality, and injustice, and she found a space in which to remind us what it could mean to be moved to listen, dance and revel in our desires. In this age of electronic noise, talentless posturing and pure spectacle, Etta James stands out as a musical giant and a reminder of what music could be when it was rooted in passion, desire and possibility rather than in the corporate playbook version that has all but killed the kind of sound she produced.