Saturday, December 4, 2010

Etta James vs. Beyonce

Last month, in the Kimmel Center on Broad Street in Philadelphia, a petite and raucous 72-year-old Sugar Pie DeSanto came onstage dressed seductively in a spaghetti strapped dress, heels, and a long gray ponytail hidden under a silver sequined beret. The 4’11”vocal powerhouse, who toured with James Brown’s revue and sang with childhood friend Etta James, belted out her 1960 hit, “I Want to Know,” with a gravelly voice and a cheeky smile.

Sugar Pie and Etta, "In the Basement"

There was sashaying, pelvic thrusts, kicking off of the heels, writhing across the stage, and---what in the world!---a backwards tumble! It wasn’t quite Shawn Johnson’s Olympic feat, but it was a tumble. The men, women, and the children screamed. She likely picked up a few internal injuries, but she also picked up a lot of respect from the younger fans in the crowd.

Sugar Pie doing her thing at R&B Foundation:

The venue was the R&B Foundation Pioneer Awards, brought to the City of Brotherly Love by hit maker Kenny Gamble. The Foundation, created to provide a financial cushion to aging R&B singers down on their luck (many who unwittingly signed shady deals in the days before artists started their own labels), helped DeSanto pay her rent for six months after an apartment fire left her homeless two years ago. Her husband, Jesse Davis, (who was her third and fourth husband) died while trying to put out a fire started in their Oakland apartment. DeSanto had called out to him to follow her as she ran out the door. By the time she got outside she realized he wasn’t behind her.

DeSanto is a Chess Records alum, like legends Fontella Bass, Moms Mabley, Muddy Waters, and Etta James. It’s not certain whether she will be featured in the upcoming December film, Cadillac Records, by writer/director Darnell Martin (I Like It Like That, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Prison Song), detailing the story of the record label. But her childhood pal, Etta, is being played by none other than Mrs. Shawn Carter. Beyonce is also serving as the executive producer of the film.

Howlin' Wolf's panty dropping Smokestack Lightning:

While no one puts on a show quite like Beyonce--with her man crushing thighs, abs of steel, universal beauty, and acrobatic dance moves--often performed in heels--red high heels---I have to wonder--Etta James? For real? Besides the obvious physical inconsistencies (they’re both thick, but Etta’s just a tad bit thicker) where is Beyonce going to go emotionally to get that?

True, when B turns into her alter ego Sasha Fierce onstage, anything is possible. From 20-foot high swings, to tight white T’s, short denim shorts, and singing chops for days, she gives an all out, sex drenched performance. There’s no hint of the safety and security of a Matthew Knowles boot camp or the stiff prestige of training at a Performing Arts High School in Houston. She becomes somebody you’d want to go to the club with and not just cause she’s the designated driver.

She has the spirit of independence like Etta, rebellious, unaffected by what people think. And she’s mesmerizing to watch.

But then the clock strikes midnight and Sasha turns back into Beyonce, a sweet, accomplished model, fashion designer, wife, singer, and dancer. The wild girl is gone. It took Etta more than a click of the clock to calm down. It took almost sixty years for her to just sit still.

Etta’s mother, Dorothy, a beautiful girl who was pregnant with her at fourteen, was a tornado of restless energy, who danced in and out of her life. Sometimes kidnapping her, they would travel on a bus for a weekend of adventure until being kicked off when running out of cash.

Staying in rooming houses and motels, her cocaine stash close by her, Dorothy was always ready for a party. So desperate to keep her around, Etta would tie a string around her diamond ring and hold the other end of the string, so if she fell asleep and Dorothy tried to slip out to a party, she would wake up.

There were other times when she took Etta to smoky clubs, lounges, ballrooms, allowing her to meet all the big names in the business. When Etta became a mother, Dorothy repeated history by kidnapping her grandson. Etta went her entire life wondering who her real father was and came closest to an answer in pool-shark Minnesota Fats.

She was raised by an aunt who died when she was twelve. She ran with a gang with her childhood pal and one of the finest girls in their neighborhood, Sugar Pie DeSanto. She bounced from school to school, stole, lost her virginity by fourteen, and by fifteen had dropped out of school, was on the road, and had begun her professional recording career.

Etta James, "I'd Rather Go Blind"

She sang gospel, blues, R&B, rock-n-roll, and jazz. She snorted coke, freebased, and mainlined heroin. Became a Muslim. Hung out with Ike and Tina, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Mick Jagger, Marvin Gaye, Minnie Ripperton, and Bob Dylan. Fought with James Brown. Hung out with drag queens. Was kindred souls with Aretha. Was adored by some men. Was beaten within an inch of her life by others. Was a party girl and a devoted wife. Had Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X knocking on her door to hang out. Got high with Miles Davis. Pulled guns on promoters who tried to cheat her out of her cash. Walked through a revolving door to rehab for most of her life. Shot heroin in her hands when she ran out of veins. Contracted tetanus from a dirty needle. Had an outside kid. Did jail time. And could count Elizabeth Taylor as one of her fans.

In Etta’s biography, Rage to Survive, by David Ritz, she details an exchange between her and her idol, the Queen, Dinah Washington. When she saw her walk into a club where she was performing, she decided to sing one of her hits, “Unforgettable.”

Dinah Washington's "Unforgettable" and she is:

In the middle of the song, she heard a crash. The Queen had swept the glasses off of a table.
“Girl! She screamed, pointing at my head, “Don’t you ever sing the Queen’s songs!”

She later told her in private:

“Don’t you ever pull shit like that, not when I’m around.”The Queen gave her a hug and the next day they hung out.

Etta has said in interviews that she doesn’t mind Beyonce playing her, though they don’t look much alike. She is fond of music by younger artists--Keith Sweat, Aaron Hall, Mary J. Blige--and doesn’t believe in the notion that younger singers can’t carry the musical torch.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Beyonce. I like her music. I just don’t want to look at the screen and see Beyonce playing Etta James. I just wanna see Etta.

And it seems like she has so many other things to do. She has an album dropping in November and is starring in a thriller. She models, she fashion designs, she sings, she wifes. Now she executive produces. Can somebody else have a job?

Beyonce: Check on It:

I understand we are in times of convergence, where one person has to be able to perform multiple tasks, but I’m a bit skeptical. Maybe I’m old fashioned. I like my hairdresser, but I wouldn’t want her performing my pap smear after she juiced up my jheri curl.

What if Stevie Wonder had decided to put out a fragrance, maybe call it Rocket Love? And got an endorsement deal from Nike? At the height of his career in the ‘80s, signed on to executive produce Beat Street AND starred as the breakdancer Lee? Would we have had Innervisions? Songs in the Key of Life?

Stevie's Rocket Love:

Lee, in all his glory, in Beat Street:

I’m not knocking the business savvy of artists today. There’s a reason the R&B Foundation is necessary. But I have a revolutionary idea. Why don’t we let trained actresses act in the movies?

Can’t we find a big-boned, supremely talented actress to play Etta? Someone who looks and feels the part? The casting director in Martin’s last film, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” the film adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s book, already hurt my feelings by having Halle Berry play the character Janie and Michael Ealy play the character Teacake (wasn’t Teacake dark-skinned in the book? Are Ealy’s eyes blue?).

But then, B is full of surprises. She pulled off giving up Popeye’s chicken and biscuits. I don’t know anyone else who has accomplished that. Maybe she will come through for me.

Seventy-year-old Etta James is still dazzling. In 2006, she released an album, “All the Way,” and I’m willing to bet, like DeSanto, she’s still shaking her hips. If we’re gonna do this convergence thing let’s get Etta James in the movies and maybe even her own fragrance. In the movie, she could play a take-no-prisoners, bad ass singer, no housecoat having, blues girl gone wild.

She could play, well, Etta James.

Originally published on

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