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Etta James: Still Singing Her Song

After five decades in the music business, Etta James continues to draw fans. Her signature song, "At Last" remains a favorite and soon R&B singer Beyonce will portray the singer in a new movie, "Cadillac Records."


Other segments from the episode on November 28, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 28, 2008: Interview with Robert Gordon; Interview with Etta James.


Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Music Journalist and Filmmaker Robert Gordon


I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of movie "Cadillac Records")

CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER (As Willie Dixon): I'm Willie Dixon. I'm making these audio recordings so that when you visit Chess Recording Studio you know the history. And the first time a girl took off her underwear and threw them on stage, it was on account of a fellow singing the blues. I don't know why girls start doing it when they call that rock and roll. It took a whole lot of people to make the music that changed the world. Yes, sir. This story ain't just about me.

DAVIES: Chess Records, the fabled Chicago blues and R&B label, is the focus of a new film "Cadillac Records." It stars Beyonce Knowles as singer Etta James and Jeffrey Wright as blues guitarist and singer Muddy Waters. Chess Records was run by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess. Their roster of performers included not only Willie Dixon, Etta James and Muddy Waters but Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry and Koko Taylor. Our guest Robert Gordon is the author of the biography of Muddy Waters, the musician who literally electrified the Delta blues. Muddy Waters grew up on a plantation on the Mississippi Delta and moved to Chicago as a young man.

He not only took the blues in a new direction. He influenced rock and roll. Gordon writes, his song "Rolling Stone" inspired a band name and a magazine. When Bob Dylan went from acoustic folk music to rock and roll, he hired white musicians who'd learned from Muddy in Chicago. Songs that Muddy wrote or made famous had became mainstream hits when performed by Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and plenty of others. Robert Gordon's book is "Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters." He's also the author of "It Came from Memphis" and "The King on the Road." He directed the blues documentary "All Day and All Night" and a PBS documentary on Muddy Waters. Here's Muddy Waters recorded in 1950.

(Soundbite of song "You're Gonna Need My Help I Said")
Mr. MUDDY WATERS (Blues Musician): (Singing) Well, you know,
You leave home in the morning and you don't come back,
You don't come back until tonight.
You won't cook me no food, you still say you treat me right.
But hey, you gonna need, you gonna need my help, I said.
Well, you know, I won't have to worry.
I have everything, oh God, coming my way.
No, I ain't gonna worry about it no more, man.
All right, little welcome.


Robert Gordon, welcome to Fresh Air. Let's start with just summing up Muddy Waters' musical importance. Would you do that for us?

Mr. ROBERT GORDON (Music Journalist, Film Maker): OK. I think his great musical contribution is, sort of, juicing the blues and creating the foundation for rock and roll. He started in the Delta in the South on an acoustic guitar and in the '40s went to Chicago where an acoustic guitar couldn't be heard in the clubs. And adapted the Delta blues style and the feeling of the Delta blues and put it first to an electric guitar and then into a full band. And when they started doing that faster in the '60s, they called it rock and roll.

GROSS: You've put together some tracks that are well-known and some that are obscure. So, let's listen to what is, I think, a pretty obscure Muddy Waters recording. This is from 1941, before he started plugging in. And it's a well-known song of his, "I Can't Be Satisfied." What should we be listening for in this 1941 recording?

Mr. GORDON: Well, this is the first time he's going to hear himself back, which is an interesting thing to think about. He gets the validation from hearing this that he can do it. And what I think you hear in these early recordings in his type of blues, you can hear the work, you can hear, sort of - there's like blues like Robert Johnson where you hear, kind of, the field hand playing hooky. He's not at work. In Muddy I think you hear the work and so you can just kind of - I think this evokes the feel very clearly.

GROSS: So here's Muddy Waters recorded in 1941 recorded by Alan Lomax.

(Soundbite of song "I Can't Be Satisfied")

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) Well if I feel tomorrow like I feel today
I'm gonna pack my suitcase and make my getaway.
Lord, I'm troubled, I'm all worried in mind.
And I've never been satisfied.
And I just can't keep from crying.
Yeah, I know my little ol' baby, she gonna jump...

GROSS: Muddy Waters, recorded in 1941. Muddy Waters was first recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax. Lomax made that 1941 recording that we just heard of "I Can't Be Satisfied." How did Lomax find out about Muddy Waters?

Mr. GORDON: It actually goes back to this fire in Natchez in, I believe, 1940 at a night club where there was a black society ball, and because people were going to be trying to crash the party they'd locked the doors at the club. And when the club caught on fire, there was no escaping. It was this horrible, horrible fire. And this African-American musicologist at Fisk University, a black school in Nashville, knew that a year after that fire there would be a new folklore about it, that there would be songs written. He wanted to go down to Natchez and record that new material. And when, in the course of appealing for funds, Fisk went to the Library of Congress, and that's where Alan Lomax got wind of the project and saw the importance of it. It ended up that the timing was such they couldn't get to Natchez but they chose Coahoma County, which is where Clarksdale is in Mississippi, because they had a very dense African-American population. And they went down there in 1941 and '42 to investigate the role of music in the culture there.

GROSS: And that's where he found Muddy Waters.

Mr. GORDON: He found Muddy Waters and Honeyboy Edwards and Son House and just a whole slew great recordings.

GROSS: You described what Muddy Waters reaction was after Alan Lomax played back Water's first recording. What was his reaction?

Mr. GORDON: He hears himself, you know, he's got all these 78s in his cabin that he's heard, and when he hears himself back he goes, man, I can sing.

GROSS: So he was pleased with what he heard.

Mr. GORDON: Yeah. He was pleased. I think he was astounded.

DAVIE: Robert Gordon speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. He's the author of the Muddy Waters biography "Can't Be Satisfied." More after a break. This is Fresh Air. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Robert Gordon. Author of the biography "Can't be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters."

GROSS: Robert Gordon, let's jump ahead seven years when he makes this song again and records it commercially. What's the difference between the two versions?

Mr. GORDON: Essentially, what we're going to hear in this is what I call amplified Delta blues. That is, he's now been given an electric guitar and begun to figure it out. He hasn't created what will soon be called Chicago blues or urban blues or city blues. And instead here it's the Delta style that we just heard with a little more power. I think you can feel the kind of tractor seat bounce in that song that we just heard and that we'll hear now. I just imagine him in a seat either on the tractor or behind a plow. And I think there is the rhythm of those wheels and the furrowed field, I think all of that is right here.

GROSS: Here's Muddy Waters in 1948, "Can't be Satisfied."

(Soundbite of song "I Can't Be Satisfied")

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) Well, I'm going away to leave.
Won't be back no more.
Going back down south, child.
Don't you want to go?
Woman, I'm troubled.
I be all worried in mind.
Well, baby, I just can't be satisfied.
And I just can't keep from crying.
Well, I feel like snapping.
Pistol in your face.
I'm gonna let some graveyard, Lord, be your resting place.
Woman, I'm troubled, I be all worried in mind.
Well, baby, I can't never be satisfied.
And I just can't keep from crying. Baby.

Mr. GORDON: If I can, can I talk a little more about that song?

GROSS: "Can't Be Satisfied?" Sure.

Mr. GORDON: Yeah.

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. GORDON: Because that - when he makes that recording, you know, on which basically his career is built because "Can't Be Satisfied" comes out and it takes off. You know, he's established. It comes out on a Friday. It sells out over the weekend, which was very rare. And all of a sudden, he's a name, you know, and then his career is going. That was recorded at his third session with Leonard Chess in Chicago. And at each session, it was Muddy Waters on guitar and a piano player, and you can hear where the guitar is about to break into modernity and the piano gets in the way, you know. Like, Leonard knew the old style. That was all he knew. And so when this third session is about to be done, Muddy speaks up and says, hold it. Let me do one my way. And because, you know, the results hadn't been great so far, Leonard says OK. Muddy goes back out, no piano. You know, just him and a bass player now. And that's when he records this sound, and that is when Leonard's in the studio going, what he's saying? You know, he can't even get it. He can't get the sound or even understand it. And there was a lady partner in the business at that time. Muddy always appealed to the ladies. And she got it. She said, no, we got to put that out. And it gets, you know, lapped up right away by the Chicago people who thirsted for that sound.

GROSS: Well, we've already heard that recording to which you just referred. Let's listen to another recording that Muddy Waters makes pretty early in his stay in Chicago. This is from 1950, and this is "Rolling and Tumbling," which has since been covered many times. What do you find remarkable about this recording?

Mr. GORDON: Well, this is recorded upon the return to Chicago in 1950 after he's enjoyed some success. He and Jimmy Rogers, who was his guitarist, and Little Walter, who was the harmonica player, and Baby Face Leroy on drums, they say, you know, man, we made it. Let's go home in triumph. And that's when they go back and do this tour in the South, and they get a program on KFFA where they'd heard King Biscuit Time, you know, in their youth. And they come back north and Leonard Chess at Chess Records will not record the band. He's very, you know, he's got a successful thing. He didn't move. He didn't like to change. And Muddy was all about change. So, the band went to this competing recording studio and, I think - and they laid down this track. And in it, I think you can hear, you know, the excitement of their triumphant return home, and they're back in the North and, you know, the world is theirs, and they are just enjoying it. Very sexual, what we'll hear, too, which I think is, you know, at the core of the blues. You'll hear no words essentially here. This is just power.

GROSS: Let's hear it. Recorded in 1950, Muddy Waters.

(Soundbite of song "Rollin' and Tumblin'")

GROSS: Muddy Waters recorded in 1950, "Rolling and Tumbling." Well, as you were explaining, Muddy Waters recorded that for a record label that wasn't Chess because the Chess - Leonard Chess of Chess Records didn't like the sound of it. But then, Leonard Chess decides to record that song. What happened?

Mr. GORDON: Chess was really the power in the market at that time, and that record came out. It didn't have Muddy's name on the label, but his name - you know, his sound was all over. It was very clear who it was. It came out under the name of, variously, either Little Walter the harmonica player or Baby Face Leroy the drummer. And I love that drum in there. It's just like - you know, it's punk rock, 16th notes, just constant. And so Chess says, hey, you know, this is starting to take off. You come over here and do it for me. And they record a much cleaner version that doesn't have that same kind of frenzy to it. And it doesn't have the band either. But at that point, after that, Leonard Chess begins to bring in other band mates because the audience response to that version of "Rolling and Tumbling" indicated that the audience was ready for a band.

GROSS: I want to skip ahead to 1951, to a recording called "Still a Fool." And you say that this recording really exemplifies what's going to happen with the use of electric guitar. Talk a bit about this 1951 recording and the new sound that Muddy Waters is getting in it.

Mr. GORDON: This is the beginning of urban blues. This is the beginning. This is when the electric guitar is no longer playing amplified Delta blues. This is playing - this is a new sound. This is not a sound that they heard or could have made in the Delta. Listen to the power in the electric guitar, the crunch of the strings. Again, this is - I think it speaks for itself, really. But you'll hear, I mean, from here, this is where - this is essentially the foundation of modern blues.

GROSS: Let's hear it. Muddy Waters, recorded in 1951, "Still a Fool."

(Soundbite of song "Still a Fool")

Now there's two, there's two trains running and it never runs my way.
Now then one is running at midnight, the other one is running in just four days.
Oh Lord, sure enough, it is.
Oh well. Somebody help me with my blues.
Now that she's the one, I've been loving
I do hate to lose, I do hate to lose

GROSS: Muddy Waters, recorded in 1951. That's a really pretty great recording. Do you think his singing changes as his guitar playing changes?

Mr. GORDON: That's funny because right in that song, I think the - you hear the guitar playing so entwined with the singing and they both have that - it's almost like a distortion, you know, that rattle, that deep chestedness. So I guess, in a way, it does. You know, the guitar sound essentially pulls him into this new kind of singing. Yeah. I hadn't really thought about that, but there, I think, there it is, you know. That's where they're both entwined and they're both going. These are - this is like new and I just, I love hearing that song. I could hear that song all day.

DAVIES: Robert Gordon is the author of the biography "Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters." Muddy Waters is portrayed by Jeffrey Wright in a new film "Cadillac Records" about the Chicago label Chess Records. We continue our conservation with Robert Gordon in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davis and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

She move me man.
Honey, I don't see how it's gone.
She move me man.
Honey, I don't see how it's gone.
She got a pocket full of money.
Little doll don't try to hit me more.
She moved me when she got drunk.
Then she say I'm not in nowhere.

DAVIES: This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davis, filling in for Terry Gross. Chess records, the Chicago Blues and R&B label, is the focus of a new film "Cadillac Records." Blues guitars and singer Muddy Waters recorded with Chess. Let's get back to our 2002 interview with Robert Gordon, author of "Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters."

TERRY GROSS: One of the things you did for the biography of Muddy Waters is find some of his surviving friends and surviving relatives. Who are the surviving relatives that you were able to make contact with?

Mr. GORDON: I made contact and became friends with Muddy's brothers, half-brother, in Rolling Fork, Robert Morganfield, and his granddaughter whom he raised, Amelia Cookie Cooper. And through them, really, once I met them and gained their trust and developed a rapport and Cookie, especially, the granddaughter, she was raised by Muddy and his wife, lived with them since she was three in 1959. And I knocked on her door. She was expecting me. She opens the doors and says essentially, I told you I would talk to you, so come in, but I don't really want to talk to you. And I had waited about a year and half or two years into my research to approach her, because I wanted to go in educated and armed. And once I began to ask, you know, detailed family-specific questions, she opened up. And she said that Muddy, you know, was not a great man in the house that, you know, she talked frankly about his womanizing. And about the effect that had on his wife and in the household and on Cookie. Her doing that was a huge inspiration to me, because it gave me - there is a dark side to Muddy Waters. In the forward to the book Keith Richard writes, there's a demon in all of us. And certainly there was a demon in Muddy. And her frank and forthright account of it allowed me to approach it similarly in the book.

GROSS: Well, there's certainly a lot of darkness in his lyrics and a lot of sexuality in his lyrics. So I guess, in that sense, it's not surprising that there was darkness and a lot of sexuality in his life as well. How did it affect your sense of him as a man to hear stories of his womanizing and of other things that he did that, I would imagine, were dark or offensive to you?

Mr. GORDON: I was on this book - it took me five years to write because it was, you know, because he didn't read or write, there was no filing cabinet I was going to find that had the box with his journal and all the answers in it, you know. So it took going around and finding the people. And in that five years, I went from, you know, really liking him to, there was a period where I really didn't like him.

GROSS: Did it affect your feelings about his music? Because, let's face it, a lot of the songs are about having sex with woman who you are not married to and who may be married to other people or you may be married to another person.

Mr. GORDON: "She said, come on in now, Muddy, my husband just now left." That's from "Rolling Stone." In the five years, I never tired of listening to the music. And I think what this, sort of, understanding of his understanding of his sexuality, what that gave me was, I think, you know, I began to examine the lyrics deeper and, kind of, feel the sex in the songs deeper.

GROSS: Why don't we close with a recording of Muddy Waters singing his song "Manish Boy." What's the significance of this recording?

Mr. GORDON: Well, you know, the sexuality here again is very clear. And several people in Muddy's family talked about that when he would sing this song, he brought a voice, you know, he threw his whole self into it. Which I think was part of his art, you know. There's a lot of people who sound great, but he was able to make it work on tape time and time again. So, I think what you hear here is Muddy Waters singing, you know, I'm a man and he - when I asked Cookie, the granddaughter once, you know, why do you think he did these bad things to the home? And she said, because he's a man. And that kind of left me stunned but, you know, in this song I think you'll hear it.

DAVIES: Robert Gordon recorded in 2002. His biography of Muddy Waters is "Can't Be Satisfied."

(Soundbite of the "Manish Boy" by Muddy Waters)

Oh, yeah, oh, yeah.
Everything, everything, everything's gonna be alright this morning.
Oh yeah, wow.
Now when I was a young boy, at the age of five.
My mother said I was gonna be the greatest man alive.
But now I'm a man, way past 21.
Want you to believe me, baby. I had lots of fun.
I'm a man. I spell "m", "a", child, "n." That represents man.
No "b", "o," child, "y." That mean manish boy.
I'm a man. I'm a full-grown man.
I'm a man. I'm a natural born lover's man.

DAVIES: That was Muddy Waters. Coming up, we'll hear from another recording artist (missing audio).
Fresh Air
12:00-100 PM
Etta James: Still Singing Her Song


The new film "Cadillac Records" tells the story of the Chicago Blues and R&B label Chess Records. It stars Beyonce Knowles as singer Etta James and Jeffrey Wright as blues guitarist and singer Muddy Waters. Etta James got her start at the age of 16 when she was discovered by Johnny Otis and began performing in his traveling R&B review. By age 17, she had her first hit, "Roll With Me, Henry," an answer song to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie." James began recording with Chess in 1960, and her hits include, "All I Can Do Is Cry," "Trust In Me," Something's Got A Hold On Me," and probably her best known hit, "At Last." We'll hear Etta James recording of "At Last" later, but first let's listen to Beyonce Knowles' version recorded for the new film "Cadillac Records."

Ms. BEYONCE KNOWLES (R&B Singer): (Singing) At last, my love has come along. My lonely days are over, and life is like a song. Oh, yeah, at last the skies above…

DAVIES: Beyonce Knowles singing Etta James' hit "At Last". Terry Gross spoke with James in 1994.

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

Ms. ETTA JAMES (R&B Singer): 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?

Ms. JAMES: They were lovely. They were older people, and they had property, and they lived in the east side, 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. 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 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's - at San Francisco - 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. 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, 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. I want to play "Something's Got a Hold On Me" from 1961. Do you think of this as having a gospel sound?

Ms. 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's "It Must Be Love."

Ms. JAMES: "It Must Be Love," right. Now, don't get me, because I'm not the one who decided to, but I was one of the writers. I just kind of said, OK well, let's go, rock and roll.

GROSS: This is Etta James, recorded in 1961.

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Oh, sometimes I get a good feeling, yeah,
I get a feeling that I never, never, never, never had before, no no,
And I just wanna tell you right now,
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 hey yeah, It must be love.
You know it must be love. Let me tell you now.

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

Ms. JAMES: Well, it kind of, yeah, I think it was kind of a little bit of both, really. But he really found me, because I wasn't - at that time, my mother - 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. And we had wrote an answer to the song "Work With Me, Annie."

GROSS: The Hank Ballard record.

Ms. JAMES: Right. So, during those days, you know, everybody would make an answer. He said, work with me Annie then we said, roll with me, Henry. So, one night the young girl and myself, they 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 said, yeah, Johnny Otis. I told him - I told him that we have a girl group, and he says he wants to hear us. And I said, yeah, right. How does he want to hear us? We're out there in the project in the boonies, right? And she says, oh, he's at the hotel there and all of the band and everything. And myself and the girl, we looked at each other and said, yeah right. Now, we're 15-year-olds and we're going to the hotel with the band and Johnny Otis?

Johnny Otis was like about a 34 or 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 are you doing? And we said, oh, we're doing alright. 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 is going to bother you. He says OK, so we got up and got dressed, got in the cab, we 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 looked like a tall, kind of, like a creole man with a nice mustache and a beard and, you know, nice pompadour hair, and he was standing there all stately, and he had two or three more guys with him. One guy was his manager, it was a much older man. And when we got there he says, oh, I'm glad to see you, and come on up and let's see what - 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" and…

GROSS: So you auditioned for Johnny Otis. He liked your singing, I suppose, and invited you to go on a tour, but you were still a minor. Did you have to get your mother's permission?

Ms. JAMES: Well, that was the 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 give me your mother's address and phone number and all this stuff and saying that you can travel, you're allowed to travel with me 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.

GROSS: Oh, I see, right.

Ms. 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, and this was the first thing recorded after going on the road with Johnny Otis, and it's "Roll With Me, Henry," also called "WallFlower."

Ms. JAMES: You can call it "Dance With Me, Henry."

GROSS: Yeah, called "Dance With Me, Henry," also, and this is Etta James.

(Soundbite of the song "Roll With Me Henry" by Etta James)

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Hey Baby, what do I have to do, to make you love me, too,
You have got to roll with me Henry,
Alright baby,
Roll with me Henry,
Don´t mean maybe,
Roll with me Henry,
Any old time,
Roll with me Henry,
Won´t change my mind,
Roll with me Henry,
All right,
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." And was that supposed to be the tamer version, the..

Ms. 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.

Ms. JAMES: Think about it, yeah, think about it, they would probably burn Prince at the stake.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JAMES: But you couldn't say roll so rather than - they banned, they banned my record from the air. And what happened, 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.

DAVIES: Singer Etta James speaking with Terry Gross in 1994. More after a break, this is Fresh Air.

Let's get back to Terry's interview with singer Etta James recorded in 1994. She's portrayed in the new film "Cadillac Records," about the label she recorded with, Chess Records.

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.

Ms. 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 like the poochie lips and the mole and all this.

So I think what I did, it was kind of combine - my mother had bleached my hair carrot red at one point, and then I said, well, maybe that's not flamboyant enough. So I just, kind of, went into Detroit one day, and one of the fellows over there said, oh, Ms. James, why you would probably look fabulous with blond platinum hair. So he bleached my hair blonde, and it looked good. And so, then I started - what I was doing was trying to be a glamour girl, because I had been a tomboy most of the time. And I wanted to look grown, you know, I want to wear tall high-heeled shoes, and fishtail gowns, and big long rhinestone earrings, you know.

GROSS: So how long did you dye your hair?

Ms. JAMES: For how long?

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. 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?

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

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

Ms. JAMES: Not when I got down. You know, I had given it up many a time. You know, I had kicked - I'd kicked my habits many a time. But when I went in 1974, I gave heroin up. I was on methadone for 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 - stopped using?

Ms. 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. I just said, I just picked up, you know, picked up the ball and started running with it. The thing was when I went to this rehabilitation center, while I was in that program, they would take me out - kindness with support, to kind of do little gigs here and there. We went to Africa to do the Black Festival there. We went to the American Song Festival. And so my therapist, you know, psychologist was taking me around, trying to just, you know, dip me in a little bit to let me know, you know, this is the business here that you've been in all your life. Now, what's going to be different about this when you come out? So we would just do test runs and things.

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

Ms. JAMES: Oh, yeah, as a matter of fact when I was in rehab at the same rehab center in the '70s, '74, '75, I got a letter from Keith Richards that had told - 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 had B.B. King, and they 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 will 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: Etta James, it's been a pleasure. I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

Ms. JAMES: Thank you so much, Terry.

DAVIES: Terry Gross speaking with singer Etta James. In the 1960s, she recorded with the Chicago record label Chess Records which is the subject of the new film, "Cadillac Records."

(Soundbite of acknowledgement)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Let's close with Etta James' 1961 hit single "At Last."

(Soundbite of the song "At Last" by Etta James)

At last, my love has come along.
My lonely days are over,
And life is like a song,
Oh, yeah, at last,
The skies above are blue,
My heart was wrapped up in clovers,
The night I looked at you,
I found a dream that I could speak to,
A dream that I can call my own,
I found a thrill to rest my cheek to,
A thrill that I have never known,
Oh, yeah when you smile, you smile,
Oh, and then…
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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