“The blues is my business/and business is good,” roars the remarkable Etta James on her new album “Let’s Roll.” The sharp lyric is an apt summation of her gutsy, signature sound and the healthy state of her nearly half-century-long career.
But things haven’t always been so great for the 65-year-old singer, who plays Atlanta tonight. James arrived on the hopping rhythm and blues scene of the late 1950s at age 17 with the racy “Roll With Me Henry.” She soon racked up a string of R&B hits, including the now-classic ballad “At Last,” which has even been covered by the barely clad likes of Christina Aguilera.
But by the late 1960s, her career had hit a rough stretch of road. Chalk it up to bad men, bad management and the long bad trip of heroin addiction.
Fast-forward to the present day, and James is back: drug-free (thanks to a couple of rehab stints); critically acclaimed, unlike many of her peers who died before receiving their due; and artistically vital with her rollicking new album of barroom-ready blues-rock.
Recently, we scored a few minutes of phone time with James, who notoriously hates doing interviews. If you want to know more about her, check out her fast-paced autobiography “Rage to Survive.” But here’s our brief peek into her world.
Q: What’s up with the glamorous new image?
A: You think I look glamorous? I think I look ugly. I look like a possum or something. I don’t like to smile for one thing [when people take my picture]. When I smile it really looks fake because my nose curls up and my teeth stick out. What’s happening is my mouth is smiling but my eyes are not, so you know I’m faking.
Q: Are there any current performers who remind you of yourself?
A: I think a little bit of Queen Latifah. I’m not trying to take any credit from her or anything. But just the way she acts and carries herself. But I think Mary J. Blige more because I was like her, kind of like a roughneck with tattoos and stuff. She just reminds me of me. And Norah Jones — she’s a little doll. She hasn’t gotten tainted yet by this business. People like her and myself, we love show business because that’s all we know how to do. But as far as all the boogity boogity stuff [the interviews, the pictures, the touring], that’s the kind of stuff that gets on your nerves.
Q: Which current performers don’t you like?
A: I hate those people who put on a lot of airs and think they’re really all that. They probably can’t sing. They’re just all sex. And I don’t like that prissy prissy stuff. I like more of the rugged stuff, people who have a sort of attitude. [I don’t like it] when they come on the stage and they’re smiling with a big smile, looking like one of those jack-o’-lanterns. But I won’t name names. I’ll get myself in trouble and be like the Dixie Chicks.