It’s sad that blues immortal Etta James responded as she did to Beyoncé Knowles’ serenading President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle at the inaugural ball with Knowles’ rendition of James’ classic, “At Last.” James derided Beyoncé in a vitriolic diatribe that did not befit the dignity of James, Knowles or, for that matter, President Obama. And the media couldn’t wait to jump on it with all four feet.
There is no denying that, for instance, “She had some nerve singin’ my song that I been singin’ forever,” was about the most tactful remark James made. However, there is reason to believe the icon, well known for having a fiery temperament, was not quite in full possession of her faculties when she said what she said the way she said it.
You won’t find them at as many sites on the Internet as you will of Etta James picking on Beyoncé, but there are, if you look for them, references to Etta’s son Donto James acknowledging that his mother, as he told Reuters, had “been in a pretty big battle” with a debilitating disease. He also said that Etta had been combative and “very confused.”
Add things up. It is entirely possible James, in addressing Beyoncé, started to say “Thank you” and it wound up, “F— you.”
The thing is, the public knows, thanks to selective coverage and the media’s penchant for stirring up sugar, honey, iced-tea, a whole lot more about Etta James’ untoward behavior than it does the fact that there is every reason in the world it could’ve been taken with a grain of salt.
It is to Beyoncé Knowles’ credit that she didn’t step into the ready-and-waiting trap of dissing Etta James in return. As far as I’ve been able to research, she didn’t even defend herself but simply had enough integrity to withstand the ugly episode. Thankfully, so did the Obamas.
Bottom line, there is no erasing the tribute Beyoncé Knowles’ performance paid in the film Cadillac Records — which, by the way, Knowles completely financed — resurrecting Etta James’ name from the mass grave of forgotten greats to which so many gifted Black performers have tragically been consigned. There is an entire generation that would not have the slightest idea who Etta James is, was or ever had been were it not for Cadillac Records.
Beyoncé Knowles’ status as a multi-platinum selling superstar recording artist shone a light on Etta James, for which it wouldn’t hurt the public to be profoundly grateful. Further, there is heartbreakingly realistic portrayal in the movie: Beyoncé Knowles brought Etta James to such compelling life it is a shameful indictment of the Academy Awards that Knowles wasn’t so much nominated for an Oscar she richly deserved to walk away with hands-down.
Just think. Had that happened, maybe the script would’ve flipped and Etta James would’ve done a guest spot, singing “At Last” at the Oscars. Or, as Twin Cities educator Rekhet Si-Asar recently pulled this columnist’s coat, imagine James and Knowles doing a duet. This would have been a mesmerizing moment in which the enduring legend and the contemporary superstar celebrating how much they, even now God rest Etta James’ soul, still have in common with one succeeding to the other’s timeless legacy.
Things could’ve and should’ve turned out differently. Point is, because they didn’t doesn’t mean we can’t still, to paraphrase that corny song, accentuate the positive and later for the negative.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.