- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006

“Those who count one out prematurely usually dine on a diet of crow,” said the ever-sassy songstress Etta James.

For her svelte new looks alone, folks are crowing a lot again about Miss James — aka Jamesetta Hawkins, Miss Peaches, Mrs. Mills and My Favorite Female Singer.

Having shed 200 pounds and wearing picture-perfect makeup, Miss James is nearly unrecognizable, until she speaks in her unmistakable gruff and gritty voice. Yours truly was privileged to hear those famous pipes up close and personal Friday afternoon.

Miss James was in the District to receive a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters Inc.

The star-studded, multigenerational array of recipients included actor Terrence Howard, actress S. Epatha Merkerson, singer Alicia Keys, gospel pioneer Albertina Walker and entrepreneur Robert Johnson.

Poet Maya Angelou was not present to receive the Mickey Leland Public Service Award. A special commendation was presented to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, who performed during the four-hour banquet emceed by comedian Steve Harvey.

“I always love coming to D.C.,” Miss James said. “The people in D.C. are the baddest dancers in the country.”

We sat on a sofa in her penthouse suite at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel overlooking Rock Creek Park, sipping red wine, a gentle breeze blowing in from the balcony, as Miss James reminisced about her heyday singing at the old Turner Dance Hall, the old Uline Arena, the old Colonnade Room and, of course, the [dormant] Howard Theater.

I informed her that she wouldn’t recognize U Street, or even “D.C.,” for that matter, if I were to take her on a personal tour. Still, I promised to treat her to real down-home cooking on her return trip.

After her stomach-stapling surgery, can she still eat soul food?

“Girl, you know us fat folks ain’t gonna stop eating whatever we like,” she quipped.

Ain’t that the truth, I concurred. She pinched me and said, “Oh, you’re just a plump girl. I was 437 pounds, but I just wanted to lose that weight so bad.”

No crow for this feisty 68-year-old-diva, who hails from California and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

As the cover on her latest CD, “All the Way,” states, she’s put more “buck” in her “wild.”

The newest CD includes classic songs Miss James has always wanted to sing, such as John Lennon’s “Imagine” and James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World.”

It is scheduled for release today. Her next D.C. concert is set for April 15.

“I always like to sing ‘men’s songs’ … but women are the cause of everything,” she said.

Indeed, the prolific Miss James has reinvented herself every decade. She has sung every genre from gospel to funk.

Most fans know her signature songs “At Last,” “Tell Momma” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” But her “Mystery Lady” tribute to Billie Holiday is a classic, and her “Live in San Francisco” is her best get-down groove.

“I sing the songs people need to hear,” she said.

I asked if she meant for her life’s work to make a political statement.

“Oh yeah. I think I showed black women that they can look like they want to look,” she said. “I do what I want.”

Also, her songs show “how I feel about what [injustice] goes on with American women.”

“Miss Peaches” was the first black R&B; star to dye her hair blond. That Sassy Girl look was copied by many black women in the early ‘60s, including my own mother.

It’s immediately clear that the spirited Miss James loves to cut up. I doubled over with laughter when she lifted her terry-cloth robe to show me an undergarment designed to enhance her figure.

“I lost everything, girl, I mean everything,” she joked.

However, she didn’t lose the most important thing: her life.

Often dubbed Queen of the Blues, Miss James has survived myriad problems — from intractable drug addiction to an inability to walk.

But how?

“I’m a Christian. I’m not saying that I’m holier than thou, but from an itty-bitty girl I was around people in the church … so I try to do everything right and, if I can’t, I just pray and move on,” she said. “My mother said, ‘You always got a way of moving into something else.’”

Her biography, “Rage to Survive,” written by David Ritz, is the riveting story of a girl who lived like a gypsy and used her singing talent to carry her from trial to triumph and back again.

Marrying her third husband, Artis Mills, and having her sons, Donto and Sametto, join her music endeavors as stabilizing factors.

After beating drugs, alcohol, debt, bad men and finally food, the only addiction Miss James has yet to conquer, she said, is her love of shopping.

“Just wait to see what I’m wearing tonight,” she said, showing off a two-piece, cream-colored sequined gown and a black velvet Chinese-collar jacket with gold etchings. “If you’ve got God in your heart, can’t nothing else get in there.”

A more upbeat memoir is in the works, and several entertainers have courted the film rights to her remarkable story of success.

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