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Etta James: The 1994 Fresh Air Interview

Etta James, the legendary vocalist who is perhaps known for her version of the song "At Last," has died. She was 73. Fresh Air remembers the singer with excerpts from a 1994 interview about her lengthy career.

21:16

Other segments from the episode on January 27, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 27, 2012: Interview with Woody Allen; Obituary for Etta James; Review of the television show "Luck."

Transcript

Friday, January 27, 2012

Guests: Woody Allen-Etta James

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. Veteran director Woody Allen is having a good year. His most recent film, "Midnight in Paris," is nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and Allen's nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.

"Midnight in Paris" tells the story of a writer, played by Owen Wilson, who comes to Paris with his fiancee and her parents, and he finds himself time-traveling to his favorite era: 1920s France. Every night when the clock strikes midnight, he meets famous writers and artists of the period, and on this night, he's introduced to a writer who happens to be one of his idols.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MIDNIGHT IN PARIS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Now this is a writer, Gil. Yes, Gil.

OWEN WILSON: (As Gil Pender) Gil Pender.

COREY STOLL: (As Hemingway) Hemingway.

WILSON: (As Gil) Hemingway?

STOLL: (As Hemingway) You like my book?

WILSON: (As Gil) Liked? I loved all your work.

(As Hemingway) Yes, it was a good book because it was an honest book, and that's what war does to men, and there's nothing fine and noble about dying in the mud unless you die gracefully, and then it's not only noble, but brave.

DAVIES: Hemingway is played by Corey Stoll. Woody Allen has directed more than 40 films. He's been nominated for 17 Academy Awards and has won three, including Best Writer and Best Director for "Annie Hall."

Terry spoke to Woody Allen in 2009, when his film "Whatever Works" was released. They began with a classic scene from "Annie Hall."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANNIE HALL")

WOODY ALLEN: (As Alvy Singer) There's an old joke. Two elderly women are at a Catskill Mountain resort, and one of them says boy, the food at this place is really terrible. The other one says yeah, I know, and such small portions.

(As Alvy) Well, that's essentially how I feel about life: full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Woody Allen, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ALLEN: Hi.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting how your characters try to find pleasure in a life full of pain. My impression of you is that you're the kind of person for whom pleasure is hard to come by, in part because you've said you're a claustrophobic, agoraphobic.

"Annie Hall" was originally going to be named "Anne Hedonia," which means an inability to experience pleasure. Is pleasure hard to come by, even when your work can find it?

ALLEN: I do - there are a number of things that give me pleasure. But you know, hanging over the pleasure is always the dark cloud of, you know, the human predicament so that I can get pleasure when I'm playing with my children or I'm doing something with my wife or playing jazz.

I like to play music, and I do find it pleasurable, but these are transient oases in a vast desert of unspeakable gloom, you know. But I do get pleasure like everyone else. It's pleasurable for me to go to a basketball game, you know, but always overriding it is the notion that it's, you know, ephemeral, very ephemeral.

GROSS: Now you started in comedy by writing jokes and you were writing for an older generation. What was the pay like? Did they pay you per joke or per joke that they used?

ALLEN: You know, the pay was a lot. I mean at the time, you know, when you think that my father and mother both had to work their whole life - my father drove a cab, and was a bartender, was a bookmaker, and was a, he ran poolroom. My mother always worked for the flower market. And they had to combine their salaries.

And I started working - and you know, their combined salaries would be, you know, maybe less than a hundred dollars a week combined. And I started working and the - immediately I was making close to $200 week, just as - I mean, I was 17 years old, and I was making that. And before long I was making $1,500 a week. And in those days, I mean this was the early '50s...

GROSS: That's a lot of money.

ALLEN: You know, the mid-'50s, and it was more than my parents put together would make in ages. So the show business salaries I always felt were way out of whack with reality. Now, I haven't made a big protest over that over the years you'll notice...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: But I always did feel that they were, you know, when you see what a school teacher gets and what some terrible comedian gets or some awful singer gets, you know, it's shocking.

GROSS: Did you say your father worked in a poolroom, and he was a bookmaker?

ALLEN: Yeah, he - my father had a lot of jobs. He was always scuffling to make a living. He sold jewelry, he was a waiter, he was a bartender, he was a cab driver, he ran a poolroom, he was a bookmaker for a while...

GROSS: You must've met a lot of colorful characters through him, unless you were not welcome in that world.

ALLEN: I was young to have met the colorful characters. But he was always bringing home stolen merchandise, and you know, that was fenced to him for no money at all.

So he'd always be coming home with you know a fur coat for my mother, or a typewriter, or a tape recorder, or this, you know, and picked this up for $2 and this up for $20. And you know, there was a lot of that over the years, a lot of stuff bought, I remember that, you know, fence junk.

GROSS: Were you supposed to keep that a secret, that it was fenced?

ALLEN: It was never expressed that way. It was, you know, it was that he came home with a bargain and...

GROSS: Right.

ALLEN: You know that - and you say my God, where did you get that you know electric typewriter for a dollar and quarter?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: It's brand new.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: And you know, but you never knew that. And my father was an inveterate numbers player. There was not a day in his life that he didn't play the numbers. And whenever he won, you know, it was money for everybody.

I mean he just spread it around, you know, like Jackie Gleeson and "The Honeymooners." I mean he just, everybody - you know it was such a pleasure if he came home and had hit his number. You know, my sister and I and my mother all knew we were going to be rewarded with an extravagant bonus.

GROSS: Can you describe the neighborhood you grew up in? A lot of people imagine you growing up under the rollercoaster in Coney Island like your character in "Annie Hall."

ALLEN: Right, right, people think that. No I grew up in a very nice section of Brooklyn called Flatbush. And when I grew up there, it was a lovely, you know, it was a lovely section. I mean there were ball field and playgrounds.

There were many, many, many movie houses within, you know, walking distance of no matter where you were dropped you'd be within walking distance of a couple of movie houses. And, you know, the blocks were tree-lined, and safe, and you could go out and play ball all day long in the streets and schoolyards, and it was a very nice neighborhood.

GROSS: What was your parent's relationship like? And what did you make, what did it make you think marriage was like?

ALLEN: Marriage for my parents was kind of like what it was in all the other neighboring houses and friends' houses. It was a long truce is what it was. The - all the parents in the neighborhood, the men and women, they loved each other.

They were people who were from the Depression, and so money was a big factor because nobody had any real money, and everybody had to work. But usually what would happen is the men and the women would, the guys would work all day, and they'd come home, and then on the weekends the guys would take bridge chairs out and play cards at a table and the women would keep with the women.

There was no sense that a guy was coming home on the weekend so he could take his wife and, you know, leave the son with the babysitter or the daughter with a babysitter and check into a hotel and have a romantic weekend or do something romantic. There wasn't that.

The guys would be, you know, watching the ballgame or - not watching so much, listening on the radio to the ballgames together. They'd be playing poker, or gin rummy, or pinochle together. And that's how it was even when there was a dinner or something, uncles and relatives would get together, and as soon as the dinner was over, the guys would be in the other room around the card table, and the women would be talking in their room about - you know, and you didn't get a sense, you didn't come away with the sense of romantic passion. There wasn't much interpersonal charm to it.

GROSS: I know that your movies aren't your life. But there's a scene in "Annie Hall" that I - it's just, like, so funny and I feel like I know these people. It's the dinner scene where you're at dinner with Diane Keaton, Annie Hall's family and it's a much more kind of formal, you know, quiet polite, everybody eating slowly kind of setting. And you compare that in your mind with the family dinners you were used to where people were, like, shoveling down the food and hollering at each other and everybody's aggravated and talking about who has diabetes. Was dinner like that at home?

ALLEN: Dinner was not really like that at home, no, because you know I ate by myself at, you know, 5:30, and my mother ate at 6:30 after she had made dinner for my sister and myself, and my father got home at a quarter to nine, and he would have a - so no, that stuff was made up and exaggerated for comic purposes.

GROSS: How come you ate alone?

ALLEN: I ate alone because I liked to eat alone, because I like, you know, I liked the solitude. I liked to, you know, eat and read a comic book or something and...

GROSS: Your parents let you do that without accusing you of being antisocial and turning your back on the family?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: They were so happy that I wanted to eat alone, you know - no because my, we always lived with aunts and uncles and things. And my mother would have a better time eating with her sister. Or, if my father got home in time, and she was waiting for him, with him. But you know, what am I going to talk about with my mother? I was 10 years old or nine or 11 and out in the streets all day playing stickball, and, you know, we had nothing to talk about.

DAVIES: Woody Allen, speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with Woody Allen. His film "Midnight in Paris" is nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and Allen's nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. They spoke in 2009, after his film "Whatever Works" was released. It starred Larry David as an eccentric New Yorker who meets a young girl from the South.

GROSS: In the movie, Larry David is in his 50s, and Evan Rachel Wood is still in her teens when she shows up kind of homeless on his doorstep, and he decides, kind of against his will to - and against his better judgment, to take her in and give her a few meals and then to let her live there, and then they get married.

So forgive me for asking this because this is a little personal, but this was written before, like, long before you married Soon-Yi, but it means, let's be honest, that everyone's going to be looking for clues in this movie about your relationship with your wife.

And again, let's be honest: A lot of your fans were really kind of upset when you married the woman who is the adoptive daughter of your long-time lover. So I wonder if you thought about that kind of thing when you were making the movie, that people would just be, like, looking for clues about the older-man-younger-woman relationship and how that applies to you.

ALLEN: People do look for clues in my movies all the time...

GROSS: For who you really are.

ALLEN: In all of my movies. The people always look for clues in my movies, and they think, based on my movies, that they know me. And of course they don't know me. And there are some things you could've learned about me over the years but not much, really. You know, I was never who anybody thought I was from when I started.

When I first started as a comic in Greenwich Village, people thought that I was, at that time, some kind of a little beatnik and someone who, you know, was a kind of mousy intellectual. And, you know, none of these things were ever true. You know, I never lived in the Village. I always lived in a very nice neighborhood uptown in Manhattan.

I was never intellectual. I was never interested in intellectual things. You know, when I explain to people I'm the guy that you see in his T-shirt with a beer watching the baseball game at night at home on television. They find that hard to square with the characters that I played in the movies. But in the movies, I'm just acting.

But I've never been - you know, I was always a very athletic little boy, always, you know, never a loner or a loser, always the first one picked on any team.

GROSS: You were the first one picked on any team?

ALLEN: Always.

GROSS: See, I wouldn't have believed that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: I know. I was always a very...

GROSS: Very counter to your image.

ALLEN: Very good athlete. I was interested even in playing professional baseball. I was, you know, won track medals, you know. But nobody thinks of me that way. They think of me as, you know, some kind of little bookworm because I have these big, black glasses, black-rimmed glasses, and they think of me as a bookworm and give me more credit for intellect than I have.

And you know, I couldn't make it through college. I couldn't make it through my freshman year of college, you know. And this was not because I was some, you know, artist or intellectual above it. I couldn't cut it. I mean, I wasn't...

GROSS: You flunked out?

ALLEN: I couldn't get the - I flunked out. I was thrown out of New York University in my first year there...

GROSS: What did you fail?

ALLEN: Because I couldn't get the marks.

GROSS: In what subjects?

ALLEN: I was a motion picture production major, but now I had to take regular subjects, as well.

GROSS: Don't tell me you failed motion picture classes.

ALLEN: English and Spanish and subjects like that. I failed those subjects. And I didn't do well in motion picture production, either.

GROSS: Was this because you were busy writing jokes for other people and not studying, or...

ALLEN: No, no, I wasn't too busy. I wasn't too busy. I was uninterested. I mean, I - you know, I played ball. I was, as I say, I was athletic. I played cards. I liked to - I wasn't interested in erudition and education.

Those were not things that - I was not brought up to be interested in that, and I wasn't interested. You know, I didn't see it in my home. And so I just - this is long-winded - but just to say that people have, you know, constantly looking for clues to me in my work and seizing on things that are quite, quite unrepresentative of who I really am.

GROSS: When people love somebody's art they become very interested in the artist, and that leads them to be interested in the artist's personal life or what they can find out about it. And it's like some of your fans felt just upset, and in some ways even betrayed, maybe, because of your marriage to Soon-Yi.

And they started reevaluating well, do see his films differently now? I think a lot of people went back and re-watched "Manhattan" or thought about "Manhattan" because it's the story of an older man and a younger woman, a middle-aged man and a teenager.

Do you think it's fair or wrong to have - to evaluate an artist's work by what -by decisions they've made or what you think of decisions they've made in their personal life or do you think that that's...

ALLEN: I think you can evaluate an artist any way you choose to. You're free to evaluate an artist in any way that you want to based on anything that makes you happy.

GROSS: And do you care what people think of your personal life? Or is that just irrelevant to you?

ALLEN: Well, you know, if I say I don't care, it sounds so cold and callous. But let me put it this way: How could you go through life, you know, taking direction from the outside world? I mean, what kind of life would you have, you know, if you were - if you made your decisions based on, you know, the outside world and not what your inner dictates told you? You would have a very inauthentic life.

GROSS: So you told us you didn't eat with your family. Do you eat - when you were growing up, that you ate alone because you liked to be alone with your comic book at dinner...

ALLEN: Yeah.

GROSS: And your parents preferred the company of adults. Do you eat with your children now?

ALLEN: I eat with the children, yeah. But, you know, because they like our company, you know, and, you know, the generations are different. I'm much closer to my children than my parents were to me.

You know, my kids and I and my wife, you know, talk about the same subjects. And, you know, we're all friends. Now, I'm an older parent, but I'm still a parent in a younger generation than the generation that I grew up in, obviously. So, you know, which - I do eat with my children. And we like it.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

ALLEN: Okay. Thank you.

DAVIES: Woody Allen, speaking with Terry Gross in 2009. Allen's film "Midnight in Paris" is nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and Allen's nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Here's Sidney Bechet from the soundtrack of the film. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT LAST")

ETTA JAMES: (Singing) At last, my love has come along. My lonely days are over, and life is like a song. Oh-oh, yeah, yeah. At last...

DAVIES: Etta James, rhythm and blues and pop vocalist, died last week due to complications from leukemia. She was 73. James started recording at the age of 15 and had her first hit when she was just 17. She became an established R&B vocalist, but also had successful pop hits, including her best known, "At Last," recorded in 1961.

John 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.

Etta James had an erratic career as tastes in popular music evolved, and she battled heroin and cocaine addictions. But she won four Grammy Awards, and is in both the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame. Terry spoke with Etta James in 1994.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: You grew up in a foster home. I think when your mother had you, she was 14 years old.

JAMES: Right. She was a kid. And, you know, I had feelings about all that kind of stuff for years, and I went to therapy and all about it. But then, as I got older, I realized that she really - she really did the best for me. She put me in a lovely home. The people were, you know, lovely to me. They never said that they were my real parents. I mean, I always knew I had this good-looking, you know, high-stepping mom, and she was like only 14 years older than me. And so she did the best for me, because if she had tried to take me with her, she was just a child. What would she have done with me? Would I have been singing today? Would I have been anything, you know?

GROSS: What was your foster family like?

JAMES: They were lovely. They were older people, and they had property and they lived in the east side, the lower east side of Los Angeles. And my grandmother was a church lady and they believed in - you know, they gave me singing lessons at five.

GROSS: When you were singing in the church choir, did your grandmother or anyone else in the family get upset if, on your own time, you sang blues or any kind of secular music?

JAMES: No. Because as long as - my grandmother lived until I was - my grandmother died when I was 12. So I sang gospel music from five until 12. And so my grandmother, she never - she wasn't one of those kind of people, because I was already the prodigy child of the church and, you know, and I did nothing - but then I love church. I went to Bible camp, and I was a little Christian girl.

And until my grandmother passed away at 12, that is when my mother came back, came to get me, because I had nothing but my grandfather there in the house, and my grandmother - my mother wanted me to be with her. And she came the day of the funeral to pick me up to take me back to San Francisco. So that - at - oh, I was listening to little stuff on the sly, but I wasn't interested in secular music. But once I got to San Francisco, I like - I grew horns and a tail and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: ...I really turned into, you know, the real street kid. I was kind of like a runaway, but I had a mother. You know what I mean?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But...

JAMES: And I had a place to stay.

GROSS: You know what I'd like to do? I'd like to play one of your rhythm and blues recordings that has a very gospel sound to it. And I want to play "Something's Got a Hold on Me" from 1961. Do you think of this is having a gospel sound?

JAMES: Matter of fact, it is a gospel song. We wrote that song, and we adapted it from a gospel song. And the gospel song was "Something's Got a Hold on Me, It Must be the Lord."

GROSS: And in your song, it must be love.

JAMES: It must be love.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: Right. Right. Now, don't get me, because I'm not that one who decided to, but I was one of the writers. I just kind of said, OK, well let's go, rock and roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: This is Etta James, recorded in 1961.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING'S GOT A HOLD ON ME")

JAMES: (Singing) Oh, sometimes I get a good feeling, yeah. Yeah. I get a feeling that I never, never, never had before, no, no. Yeah. I just want to tell you right now that, ooh, I believe, I really do believe that something's got a hold on me, yeah. Oh, it must be love. Oh, something's got a hold on me right now, child. Oh, it must be love. Let me tell you, now. I've got a feeling, I feel so strange. Everything about me seems to have changed. Step by step, I got a brand new walk. I even sound sweeter when I talk. I said, oh. Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh. Hey, hey, yeah. Oh, it must be love. You know it must be love. Let me tell you...

GROSS: Well, wasn't, it wasn't too long after you moved in with her mother that you actually went on the road. I mean, Johnny Otis, who had a now-famous rhythm and blues touring revue, got you into the show. He discovered you. But how did you audition for him? How did you find him, or he find you?

JAMES: Well, he really found me, because at that time, I had ran away from home. And I went and I stayed with two girls, one named - Abby and Jean, who later became The Peaches. You know, it used to be Etta James and The Peaches. We had wrote an answer to the song "Work with Me Annie."

GROSS: The Hank Ballard record.

JAMES: Right. So during those days, you know, everybody would make an answer. You said, "Work with Me Annie," then we say "Roll with Me Henry." And so one night, the young girl and myself, there were - we were the same age. I think we were both, like, 16, and the older sister was, like, 24. And she went out to a dance in the Fillmore district, which was, you know, a heavy drag district of San Francisco. She went to see the Johnny Otis Band.

All of a sudden, we got a call that night, and it was Abby calling us back to say, listen. Guess who I'm with? I'm with Johnny Otis. And we go, oh, Johnny Otis. And she says yeah, Johnny Otis, I told him that we have a girl group, and he says he wants to hear us. And I said yeah, right. And she says, oh, he's at the hotel there, and all the band and everything. And we look - myself and the girl, we looked at each other and said, yeah, right. Now, we're 15-year-olds and we're going to go to the hotel with the band and Johnny Otis?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: Johnny Otis was like about a 34, 35-year-old man. So we said oh, no. That's all right. That's all right. We'll just - we'll cool that and everything. So Johnny Otis snatched the phone from her, and it was Johnny Otis. You know, we heard that voice, you know. And he said, hi. How you doing? And we said oh, oh, we're doing all right. He says, I hear you guys got a great group. I hear you got a song, a couple of songs, and I'd like to hear you. And he says how about catching a cab? I'll pay the cab fare, and I'll meet you out front? He said don't worry. Nobody's going to bother you. We says, OK. So we got up and got dressed, got the cab and went down there.

Sure enough, as we pulled up, we saw this tall man. You know, we'd all seen pictures of Johnny Otis with the nice hair. And he looked like he - he looked like a tall, kind of like a Creole man with a nice mustache and a beard and he had, you know, and the nice pompadour hair. And when we got there, he says oh, I'm glad to see you, and come on up and let's hear you. So we went upstairs to his room and we sang "How Deep is the Ocean" and "For All We Know" and "Street of Dreams."

GROSS: So you auditioned for Johnny Otis. He liked your singing, I suppose...

JAMES: Right.

GROSS: ...and invited you to go on the tour. But you were still a minor. Did he have to get your mother's permission?

JAMES: Well, that was a trick, there. My mother - I knew my mother wasn't going to let me go. But I told him - he says, how old are you? I said 18, which he knew that was a lie. And he says, well, you know what? I would like to take you guys to Los Angeles tomorrow to make a record. And he says, can I speak with your mother? I said no, I can't find her right now. She's working. And he says, well, can you go home and get permission from your mother, get something in writing stating that you can travel and you're allowed to travel and have her to sign it and date it. I said oh, yeah, I can do that. So sure enough, that's what I did. I went home. I wrote the note.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh, I see. Right.

JAMES: And I brought the note back with a tiny, little bag, little plastic bag or something with some clothes in it, and myself and the two girls got on Johnny's bus and we split to L.A.

GROSS: So why don't we hear the first song that you recorded after going on the road with Johnny Otis? And it's "Roll with Me Henry," also called "WallFlower."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: Been called "Dance with Me, Henry."

DAVIES: Yeah, called "Dance with Me, Henry," also. And this is Etta James.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SONG "ROLL WITH ME HENRY")

RICHARD BERRY: (Singing) Hey, baby. What do I have to do, to make you love me, too?

JAMES: You got to roll with me, Henry.

BERRY: All right, baby.

JAMES: Roll with me, Henry.

BERRY: Don't mean maybe.

JAMES: Roll with me, Henry.

BERRY: Any old time.

JAMES: Roll with me, Henry.

BERRY: Won't change my mind.

JAMES: Roll with me, Henry.

BERRY: All right.

JAMES: You better roll it while the rolling is on. Roll on, roll on, roll on, while the cats are balling. You better stop your stalling. It's intermission in a minute, so you better get with it. Roll with me, Henry. You better roll it while the rolling is on. Roll on, roll on, roll on...

GROSS: Now, after you recorded this, Georgia Gibbs did a cover recording of this called "Dance with Me, Henry."

JAMES: Right.

GROSS: And was that supposed to be the tamer version, the...

JAMES: Yeah. Well, you know, during those days, you weren't allowed to say roll, because roll was, like, a vulgar word. You know what I mean?

GROSS: For sex. Yeah.

JAMES: Think about it. Yeah. Think about it. They would probably burn Prince at the stake.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: But you couldn't say roll. So rather than - they banned - they banned my record from the air. What we had to do was sell it underground, and not only that, change the title to "Wallflower." And then when Georgia Gibbs did it, she just made the "Dance with Me Henry" so that, you know, all the kids could go buy it and, you know, take it home and, you know, listen to it. Because their parents weren't going to go for know roll. Are you kidding? Roll with me? How do you roll with somebody?

DAVIES: Etta James, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1994. James died last week at the age of 73. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with Etta James, who died last week. They spoke in 1994, after James released the album "Mystery Lady," which paid tribute to the great jazz singer Billie Holiday and won James the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance.

GROSS: At some point in your career, you started dressing in evening gowns for performances and dying your hair blonde. Tell me how you created that onstage image for yourself.

JAMES: I think probably by me being so young - and I was oversized like I am now, but I mean, I had a real nice figure and I was tall. And I remember this singer Joyce Bryant. She was a black singer, and I always admired her. And I had two role models. I liked Joyce Bryant, because she wore fishtail gowns, sequined, fishtail gowns, and she was black, and she had the nerve to wear platinum hair. And then I also loved Jane Mansfield, because Jane Mansfield had the blonde hair and had the, like, the poochie lips and the mole and all this.

So I think what I did, it was kind of combined - my mother had bleached my hair carrot red at one point. And then I said, well, maybe that's not flamboyant enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: So I just kind of went into Detroit one day, and one of the fellas over there said, oh, Ms. James. Why, you would probably look fabulous with platinum hair. So he bleached my hair blonde, and it looked good. And what I was doing was trying to be a glamour girl, because I'd been a tomboy most of the time. And I wanted to look grown, you know, I want to wear tall, high-heel shoes and fishtail gowns, and big, long rhinestone earrings, you know.

GROSS: So how long did you dye your hair?

JAMES: For how long?

GROSS: Yeah.

JAMES: I think, well, most of my career. It was blonde, platinum blonde all the way, I would think, up into the '70s, maybe the '72 or '73, something like that.

GROSS: Why'd you stop?

JAMES: Well, you know, I wanted to - I think - one thing about it, I think things have changed. I know things have changed. And my career hadn't - wasn't happening and I didn't think that I needed to be that, you know, that - to attract that much attention. Another thing, I was on drugs at that time and I think I really wanted a low profile.

GROSS: Hmm. Was it difficult for you to give up drugs?

JAMES: Not when I got down to - you know, I had given it up many a time.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

JAMES: You know, I'd kicked my habits many a time. But when I went in 1974, I gave heroin up. I was on methadone maybe three or four years before that. So I had a couple of things to give up.

GROSS: Was it hard to make a comeback after you started it?

JAMES: No, not really. Because when I stopped using, you know, I wasn't the kind that went around and wanted people to pat me on the back about it. It's just that I just picked up the ball and starting running with it. The thing was when I went to this rehabilitation center I was around nothing but a lot of white kids and the thing where they were all younger than I was. And I remember on Saturdays they would play all these great rock n' roll records.

The thing was, I was doing R&B, remember, but the ZZ Tops and the Rod Stewarts and the Rolling Stones and all those people, I never really - I was busy using drugs, I wasn't there when Woodstock - I was there in New York when Woodstock was going on but I didn't want to go to Woodstock. I would rather go to Harlem, you know?

And when I was on the program on Saturdays we'd be cleaning up, they would be playing songs from all these people and I would say, ooh, man, that music is really happening. And then what really made me think it is because my song "I'd Rather Go Blind," they had a version of it by Rod Stewart. And they kept saying hey, this is the song you wrote. Listen. And I said all right.

GROSS: In 1978 you opened in some cities for the Rolling Stones on their tour. Were the Stones fans of yours?

JAMES: Oh, yeah. Yeah. As a matter of fact, when I was in rehab at the same rehab center in the '70s, '74 or '75, I got a letter from Keith Richards that had said to me that they were getting ready to do a tour. You know, that they had had Tina Turner and they had BB King and they had had different people on their tour and they had wanted me on their tour.

And the letter that they wrote came to the rehabilitation center and the therapist got the letter and he called me to his office and read the letter and the letter said that they - he said we would like to have you on tour with us. We love your music. And, he says, but what you're doing right now is more important than what we could ever do with you but we'll be sure to come back and get you when you're ready.

And that was really cool. That was when they came back in '78 and kept their word.

GROSS: I'd like to close our interview with another selection from your new album of songs that were recorded by Billie Holiday. I thought we could play "How Deep Is The Ocean" since this is one of the songs you sang many years ago when you auditioned for Johnny Otis. What do you think is the difference between what the song means to you now and what it meant to you then? And how you sing it now and how you sung it then.

JAMES: Probably it's because now I really understand, you know what I mean? I understand what I'm singing about. You know, songs that I get, any song that I decide to sing or a song that someone sends to me or recommends, I like to be able to relate to that song. Not just, you know, have a song there that talks about come fly me to the moon, let me dangle on the stars. That's not my cup of tea.

That's not real. I want to sing real stuff. I want to know what I'm singing about and I want to be able to really relate to that and I think that's what I can do now. I think that's what I definitely do. Matter of fact, I know I do.

GROSS: Etta James, it's been a pleasure. I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

JAMES: Thank you so much, Terry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN")

JAMES: (Singing) How much do I love you? I'll tell you no lie. How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky? How many times a day do I think of you? How many roses are sprinkled with dew? Ooh, how far would I travel to be where you are? How far is the journey from here to a star? And if I'd ever lost you, how much would I cry? How is the ocean? Baby, how high is the sky?

DAVIES: Etta James. Terry spoke with her in 1994. James died last week at the age of 73. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new HBO series "Luck" starring Dustin Hoffman. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This Sunday, HBO unveils its newest TV series. It's called "Luck." It's set in and around the world of horse racing and it's loaded with thoroughbred talent. David Milch created it, Michael Mann is the executive producer and directed the pilot. And the stars include Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: It isn't a long shot that David Milch's newest series for HBO, called "Luck," will be on par with his HBO series "Deadwood". It's a sure thing. That's because HBO sent out all nine episodes of the show's first season for preview, so there's no guesswork here. The racetrack is at the center of "Luck," with every character and plot line orbiting around it.

But you don't have to like horse racing, or even understand it, to get pulled in and swept along. It examines the track, and its various intrigues, from every possible perspective - from the owners and trainers of the horses, to the jockeys riding them and the gamblers betting on them. We go from the executive suites to the stables, spending time getting to know the people and problems of each. It's like "Downton Abbey" with thoroughbreds.

And speaking of thoroughbreds, that description extends to just about everyone working on "Luck." And what a collection of collaborators. David Milch hit it big before "Deadwood" with "NYPD Blue" in the '90s. Movie director Michael Mann produced two visually stunning TV series, "Miami Vice" and "Crime Story," in the '80s.

One of the biggest TV stars of "Luck," Nick Nolte, became a star thanks to the "Rich Man, Poor Man" in the '70s. And the other biggest star of "Luck," Dustin Hoffman, is new to series television, but his stardom stretches all the way back to "The Graduate" in the '60s.

And now, here they all are, doing great work at the same time. Milch throws us into the world of this California racetrack just as forcefully and assuredly, as he did when introducing us to the mining town of Deadwood. Mann directs the pilot with one eye as a documentarian and the other as an artist. Scenes and images look real but often are beautiful, especially the racing scenes.

The pictures, as well as the scripts, capture the raw power of the racehorses, who in the opening episodes often are reined in, waiting patiently for the proper time to break free and show their stuff.

The actors are exactly the same way. Dustin Hoffman plays Ace Bernstein, a powerful player who's just been released after three years in prison. Nolte plays Walter Smith, a former trainer who now owns a horse for which he has secret high hopes.

And while the other actors and actresses in "Luck" spend the opening episodes establishing their talents as well as their characters, Hoffman and Nolte play it cool, biding their time in the rear of the pack. Until, almost effortlessly, they stretch their muscles and show what they're made of.

This is a sample from episode three. Not a pivotal scene, just a nice one. Hoffman's Ace is considering a young financial whiz in his business firm for a more lucrative job and summons the kid to his luxurious office for a private meeting. Patrick J. Adams plays the young man. Hoffman, as Ace, shows his hand right away.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "LUCK")

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (as Ace Bernstein) Do you make a million dollars? Simple question.

PATRICK J. ADAMS: (As Nathan Israel) No, sir.

HOFFMAN: (As Ace Bernstein) Go home. Come back tomorrow, tell me every (bleep) thing you did between now and then. If I like what I hear, I'll give you a million dollars for the next 12 months if you work for me.

ADAMS: (As Nathan Israel) Doing what?

HOFFMAN: (As Ace Bernstein) That's the first thing you write down. Before I left here I asked him a stupid (bleeped) question.

BIANCULLI: Hoffman plays Ace like a coiled snake, while Nolte plays his character like a battered veteran boxer. And there's so much other talent onscreen, singling out some would almost be unfair to the others. But if you're a "Deadwood" fan, you'll see some familiar faces. You'll see them from other superb TV shows, as well. Eventually, you'll even see Michael Gambon, star of my favorite TV miniseries of all time, "The Singing Detective."

Finally, there are the horses - these majestic creatures who are called upon at times to share scenes and interact with various human cast members. How the horses react to each person feels primal, honest, real. And so does "Luck." The way this HBO series jumps out of the gate this first season, it'll be back for another lap around the track. Bet on it.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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