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Look back at the highs and lows of Etta James' career

Blessed with a talent was as wide as the Grand Canyon and cursed with demons just as immense, the troubled singer poured her heart and soul into her music

By Mike Greenblatt

Jamesetta Hawkins didn't have an easy start in life.

Born Jan. 25, 1938, to a 14-year-old prostitute, Dorothy Hawkins, she never knew her father. She was raised by family and friends for much of her childhood. Drug addictions, bad relationships, health problems and legal woes plagued her as an adult.

But she had one blessing throughout her turbulent life: music. Jamesetta — better known Etta James — was gifted with a powerful voice.

Lupe DeLeon was James’ longtime best friend and manager. A parole officer with a jazz agency on the side, DeLeon loved her music and understood the woman behind it. With Etta, that wasn’t easy. She was ballsy, blunt, brassy and could be hard to handle. She could talk to people and psych them out — a gift DeLeon believes James inherited from her supposed father, billiards player Minnesota Fats.

Etta James died from leukemia in 2012 at age 73, but if DeLeon has anything to do with it, her music and image will be with us for decades to come.

Etta James photo by Jay Blakesburg

"My mother always told me, even if a song has been done a thousand times, you can still bring something of your own to it. I'd like to think I did that," Etta James once said. While many others have performed the song "At Last," James made it her own.

Goldmine: Is it true BB King wrote “Sweet 16” about Etta James?
Lupe DeLeon: I can’t verify that, but I do know that they were, uh, on … for a little while, and it was back when that song came out, so it very well could be.

GM: But she was discovered by Johnny Otis.
LD: That’s right. She was 15 years old. It was San Francisco. Etta was Etta, man. I think she sneaked backstage at one of his shows, got a hold of him. Maybe it was at the hotel. She was with her vocal group at the time, a trio of singers who sang at church, and they sang for him. He was so impressed he put them on his revue, but not before telling her to get a note from her mother so she could go on the road with him. She must have forged that note. She wound up inducting Johnny Otis into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

GM: And they died within days of each other. So what was it about this precocious teenager that made everybody who heard her sit up and take notice?
LD: Etta was a real character. She was brutally honest. She was in your face.

GM: Do we know for sure that Minnesota Fats is really her dad? I think Etta believed that but …
LD: Yeah, he’s her dad, all right. She went to see him a couple of times, but he never copped to it. It was so evident, though. And I’ll tell you something: Knowing him, I could look at Etta James and go, ‘Wow, that’s Fats!’ There’s no doubt in my mind. And there was no doubt in her mind.

Etta James Beyonce Knowles

Beyonce Knowles (right) portrayed Etta James (left) in the movie "Cadillac Records." James later expressed displeasure that Knowles performed the song at the White House for President Barack Obama. Publicity photos.

GM: The movie “Cadillac Records” made mention of it. I thought Beyonce did a great job portraying Etta. What’s up with this supposed feud they had?
LD: First of all, let me say this: I also thought Beyonce was fantastic in that movie. She might not be able to come close to Etta’s vocal talents, but as far as the acting part? I was very surprised. She was damn good. And she was emotional like Etta. You could tell that she studied for the part. So, obviously, if you play Etta, you have to do “At Last.” I think, toward the end of her life, Etta’s dementia was starting to kick in. It was around 2007, 2008. She finally had to come off the road in 2009. Plus, she was still on the pills. I think that night, when she famously spoke out from the stage against President Obama and against Beyonce for singing Etta’s song at The White House, she didn’t really mean it. It was her illness, plus all the pills. She can’t stand Beyonce? She’s sick of Beyonce? She wants her song back? Hey, man, Etta would say things off the cuff and later say, “Wow, did I say that?” And, you know, by that time, the damage was done. But, no, she was really proud of the job Beyonce did. I mean, well, there was a small part of her that felt no one should touch “At Last.” And I think I feel the same way. However, in Beyonce’s case, she had to, because [she] did the movie.

GM: So, there was a little bit of negativity surrounding the fact that it was Beyonce who sang at The White House for the President and the First Lady, and not Etta James.
LD: Let me tell you about that. It’s something that needs to get out, and no one’s really told the story before. Listen, someone on the president’s staff called. They originally wanted Etta. They called me, and I told them, “I don’t represent her right now.” Let me back up. I had a heart transplant and was in a coma for four months. I came back to Etta, but we had a falling out in New York. Hey, over 32 years, I was always quitting or getting fired. That’s just the way it was. We had a real volatile relationship. So I gave them Etta’s phone number, but she never answered the call. At that time, she would rarely ever even check her voicemail. I learned later that the president personally wanted Etta and Beyonce to sing the song together as a duet at the White House. Imagine! But Etta never returned the call. That’s Etta. So Beyonce did it alone.

GM: Could she have done it in the state she was in?
LD: No, I don’t think so.

GM: Maybe that’s why she didn’t return a call from The White House.
LD: But she went on the road again! Never should have. God, she was so mad. She had seen Beyonce on television, and not even knowing that the call was in her voicemail, screamed, “What the hell is this? Why is she singing my song at The White House? This is too much! Wait one g**damned minute. I should be doing that.” And so when she had her next live performance, she said what she said. That’s the truth. That’s what happened. Hopefully now, people will understand.

Etta James photo courtesy Kayos

In the early 1980s, times were lean for Etta James. She was working for $400 a night — and that had to cover the band's expenses, too. Her break came when Lupe DeLeon got her a gig performing at the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle. Publicity photo.

GM: After Etta left Chess Records, there was over a decade of total silence from her due to her heroin addiction.
LD: She was very strung out. I didn’t know her then, so I’m not going to comment. I just know what I know: Throughout Etta’s life, she battled addiction, whether it was food, heroin, cocaine or painkillers. She never quite let it go in her life.

GM: Yet she had that fabulous resurgence in the ’80s which culminated with the Barry Beckett-produced sessions in Muscle Shoals, Ala.
LD: Let me tell you the whole story. I was originally a probation officer. I then started a small jazz and blues agency representing Stan Getz, Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Abbey Lincoln, Bobby Hutcherson and Junior Walker & The All-Stars. I was in my late 20s; it was 1981. I was also still working for the probation department in San Francisco. I come to work one day, and it was my job to interview people who were arrested and who had to go to court. I had to get their history and find out if they were eligible to be released on their own recognizance in lieu of bail. Well, Sam Dennis, who was Etta’s boyfriend at the time, was arrested with Etta’s uncle. They were on their way to see Etta with guns and pot in the car. So I’m verifying his references, and he says, “I live with Etta James.” I said, “The singer Etta James?” He says, “Yeah.” I said, “I haven’t heard her since ‘Tell Mama’!”
Well, I go before the judge, get them out of jail, and tell him, “Hey, I might be able to help Etta. I have this agency.” He said, “No sh*t, are you kidding me? Here’s her phone number.”

A few days later, I call Etta. Of course, she didn’t return my call. So I called again. She answered the phone this time. I said, “Etta, this is Lupe DeLeon, the probation officer.” She said, “What?” I assured her I wasn’t calling as a probation officer and proceeded to tell her about my music agency. She thought I was crazy. She couldn’t believe it. I said, “No, I’m serious. I think I can do something for you.”

She was hurting at the time, working around L.A. locally for only $400 a night, and that had to include the whole band. She wasn’t doing very well at all. She was on government assistance and still living in the home that Leonard Chess [of Chess Records] gave her the deed to when he died. So I called her again, and finally she said, “Look, man, call my piano player. Here’s his number.” So I called Keith Johnson, one of Etta’s dear friends and a great musician, someone who I still know to this day. I said, “Hey Keith, this is Lupe DeLeon. You don’t know me, but I have this agency and I think I can get a gig for Etta.” He said, “Well, what is it?”

See, I had this contact at The Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle. I asked him four grand and hotel rooms and got lucky because he loved Etta James. It was just one of those fateful things. So I booked the gig, they accepted the money, loved it, in fact, and I flew to Seattle to meet Etta for the first time. She called me back into her dressing room and said, “So you’re Lupe DeLeon who got us this gig? Lupe, if you get me more gigs like this, I’ll play ’em for you all day long!” We became close. She liked me. She trusted me. And I stayed with her mostly for the rest of her life.

We started small, little gigs here and there. Then more jazz festivals. (Promoter) George Wein started helping me. My girlfriend at the time was a lawyer. She gave us money to do a live recording, but we couldn’t sell it to anybody. Nobody wanted it. So we made copies and sold ’em at gigs. That did well, and we started making some money.
Six years later, we’re doing all right, man. We’re going to Europe. We’re doing four, five festivals a year, including Montreux in Switzerland, The Hollywood Bowl, Monterey, opening for the Rolling Stones who specifically asked Bill Graham for Etta.

GM: Those Montreux gigs have been preserved for posterity on the CD and DVD of “Live At Montreux.” The CD spans performances from 1975 to 1993. The DVD is the entire 1993 performance.
LD: I heard them. They’re fabulous. Early on, when I wasn’t with her, she just had pick up bands. One year, she just used a band that (promoter) Claude Nobs put together specifically for her. I was there from ’81 on. Oh man! In ’93? We were rollin’! We were doin’ so well! The money was goooood. We put together an outstanding f**king band that year, all made up of jazz, blues and rock musicians. Etta loved that 1993 band. That band was so good, it could have made it on its own. That was a very exciting time for us. Etta was really, really powerful. We were touring a hell of a lot in ’93, playing good gigs, people starting to take notice again. It was happening.

Etta James Live At Montreux

But it had all started with (Island Records founder) Chris Blackwell. I had his ear. The big mogul! He was my idol in the business — ever since Traffic. I meet him at The Bellagio in L.A. (Producer) Rob Fraboni was there, too. So Chris says he really likes Etta, and if we want, he’d like to work with her. Well, hell yes we want! He told me his business affairs person would call me. They did, and we made a three-record deal. So we went out to Island’s recording studio in Compass Point, Nassau, the Bahamas, with Fraboni, to do the first album. We started it there, but everybody got a little crazy with drugs. Etta had been in rehab, and she got really upset, stopped the session, went back to have a meeting with Chris, and told him, “I don’t want to work there; and I want to work with someone else.” So Chris took Rob Fraboni, who had already completed the basic tracks, off the project.

GM: Rob Fraboni — who’s worked with Dylan, The Band, Clapton, the Stones, Beach Boys, Joe Cocker and Bonnie Raitt — had to be taken off the project?
LD: It was Chris who first called Barry Beckett in Muscle Shoals, yeah. Etta said, “Now you’re talkin’! She knew Barry Beckett.

GM: And the rest is history.
LD: Yeah, we met him in Nashville and the result was “Seven Year Itch.”

GM: Maybe her greatest album.
LD: That was ’89, right? So we’re on such a roll right into Montreux in ’93, continuing later that year with the Taj Mahal “Mockingbird” duet (on Mahal’s “Dancin’ The Blues” album). Then I went to a good friend of mine in the jazz world, (pianist/arranger) Cedar Walton and suggested a jazz standards album for Etta. He said he’d do it. It was all ready to go. We were in the studio with [saxophonists] Eddie Harris [1934-1996] and Red Holloway [1927-2012]. But Etta changed her mind. F**k man, it was a jazz album, and Etta always felt uncomfortable singing jazz. She was intimidated by the great jazz singers, although they all admired her. Hell, she was just as good as any of ’em. Her first Grammy Award was for a jazz album (1994’s “Mystery Lady”). It just shows Etta is a singer. Period. I mean, you’ve got Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, but they’re pure jazz. Etta can do anything — blues, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz. She could sing country, which she did. And you hear a lot of it on that recent boxed set that Sony Legacy put out.

GM: Final question. And I just have to ask you. You were her best friend. You were her manager. Were you ever lovers?
LD: Never. Not even close. Etta used to call me her little brother. Her husband, Artis Mills, is probably my best friend. He took a 10-year prison sentence for Etta. They got pulled over in Texas, and he took all the drugs and put them in his pocket. He went to a Texas prison — a black man in a Texas prison — for 10 years. He truly loved Etta. He was a great husband to her. He was with her when she died. He took care of her. He kept her at home for years. He still lives at their Riverside, Calif., home. I just spoke to him last week. We’re working together on material that’s still unreleased. Etta’s sons are involved, too. We’re moving forward. We haven’t stopped. We’re going to keep Etta’s name out there, as it should be.