Whatís striking about a conversation with Etta James is her candor. Without prodding, sheíll bring up her past troubles with drugs, racism, men, and the music business, even the argument she had the previous night with her husband. That honesty has always spilled into her music, making her finest songs as exquisite and human as Etta herself. Jamesís greatest performances ó recordings like her first hit, 1953ís " Roll with Me Henry, " the classic essay in pain and devotion " Iíd Rather Go Blind, " and the beautiful " At Last, " perhaps the most perfect evocation of loveís bliss ever committed to tape ó reveal the torrents of passion and energy and conflict that swirl inside her.
Nonetheless, at 65 James seems a much more contented soul than sheís ever been. And certainly this is a banner year in the R&B divaís half-century career. In February, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy. And on April 18, the Los Angeles native received her long overdue star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. These honors follow her 1993 induction into the Rock íní Roll Hall of Fame and her 1995 Grammy for the Billie Holiday tribute Mystery Lady (Private Music). James takes pride in these tokens of recognition, in part because the strong-willed entertainer has earned them on her own terms.
" I only sing what I feel ó R&B, blues, gospel, and rock and roll, the music that came out of the South, " she explains. " Thatís the music I have always believed in. " In keeping with that, her new Letís Roll (Private Music) sticks close to her roots. Its dozen songs balance the gnashing guitars of contemporary blues rock with the cadences of the formative period of R&B in which she began her career and the gospel tradition that introduced her to music as a child. And James will be performing songs from Letís Roll and her vast catalogue on her first headlining national tour of major clubs and theaters in decades; itíll conclude in July at the Hollywood Bowl, but not before making a stop at FleetBoston Pavilion this Friday.
For James, itís those nights she spends in concert ó her big, sweet-and-brassy voice pouring out a world of troubles and joy, her earthy demeanor and bawdy humor unrestrained ó that are most precious. " The only time that I am really truly happy ó when I feel at my best ó is when Iím on the stage. When Iím in my little place there in front of an audience ó and itís gotten littler because Iíve lost weight ó it becomes my own world. When I look out at the people and they look at me and theyíre smiling, then I know that Iím loved. That is the time when I have no worries, no problems.
" My husband and I had a big argument about this the other night. He wanted me to go out on the town, and Iím not the kind of person who likes to go out a lot. I like to shop, but I donít like to go out to dances. I donít care whoís playing. Even if itís my favorite artist, Iím probably not gonna go and see him.
" I tried to explain to my husband that the best times of my life are when Iím performing. He kept saying he understands, and he said, ĎWhen youíre on stage, thatís when youíre a big shot.í
" Well, I donít think like that. When Iím performing for the people, I am me, then. I am that little girl who, when she was five years old, used to sing at church. Or Iím that 15-year-old young lady who wanted to be grown and wanted to sing and couldnít wait to be smokiní a cigarette, you know? Iím that person. Iím not a bigwig.
" What happens is, when I perform, Iím somewhere else. I go back in time and get in touch with who I really am. I forget my troubles, my worries. On the stage Iím not really Etta James, you know? Iím Jamesetta, and Iím just doing what I really, really love to do. "
As solid as Letís Rollís up-tempo tunes like the blues homage " Wayward Saints of Memphis " and the affirmation of life " Leap of Faith " may be, itís the church-inspired songs that are the most touching. " Trust Yourself " sounds like a lost Staples Singers number, complete with backing choir. " On the 7th Day " rolls the Creation story, manís fall from grace, and the invention of the blues into a melancholy tribute to human foibles. And " Please No More, " a heartbreak ballad with a gospel arrangement (that old Ray Charles innovation), closes the CD with a slow, sad, sweet rendering. In those performances, James does indeed seem to undergo that transformation from Etta James to Jamesetta Hawkins, her original name, and she gives us a glimpse of her soul.
Etta James appears this Friday, May 30, at 8 p.m. at FleetBoston Pavilion; call (617) 228-6000.