Cry Etta James
Don't Cry, Baby!
By Larry Buford
the editor of Jamsource/Runway Magazine asked
me to write an article on the late great singer
extraordinaire Etta James in celebration of
Jazz Appreciation Month, I was hard-pressed
to come up with something new about the artist
that has not already been said
I went to a book signing and got the angle that
was born Jamesetta Hawkins. By age five she
was known as a gospel prodigy; at the time of
her death she'd mastered R&B, jazz, blues,
and rock. As she began her professional singing
career the name Jamesetta was inverted to Etta
of her early hits that soared to number two
on the R&B charts - "All I Could Do
Was Cry" - was co-written by Motown founder
Berry Gordy before there was Motown. Chess Records
producer Ralph Bass remembered about the recording
session: "One take and Etta was crying
her eyes out for real. The band wanted her to
do it over. I told them 'Forget it'
much more soul could I get from a singer?"
James had a lot to cry about. Raised by a series
of foster parents - the good and the bad - she
referred to her biological sleep around mother
as "the mystery lady". She speculated
that her father was the professional pool player
Rudolf "Minnesota Fats" Wanderone
whom she met briefly for the first time at age
49. Her childhood struggles set the stage for
a life of alcohol and drug abuse.
was a quality about James' voice that made you
cry. To this day I can hardly listen to "I'd
Rather Go Blind" without welling up as
singer/actress Beyonce did in her portrayal
of James in the movie "Cadillac Records."
I can only wonder if there was some irony in
James' hit "Don't Cry Baby" to remind
her to get through the song without crying.