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A Magical Mystery Tour With Etta James : Music: The renowned vocalist's recent collection reveals much about the influences in her life.

March 17, 1994|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the notes to her new album, "Mystery Lady," subtitled "Songs of Billie Holiday," Etta James explains how, as a child, she would watch her mother, Dorothy, only 14 years her elder, prepare to go out for the evening.

"Billie Holiday would be singing 'Fine and Mellow' on the scratchy phonograph as Dorothy painted her full lips with fire-red lipstick, powdered her face, snapped on huge hoop earrings, slipped into an elegant black dress and splashed on her midnight cologne. I can still smell it, still see her."

Inspired by these memories, James has crafted a collection of Holiday's music that reveals much about the three women. As she says elsewhere in the notes, "The mystery lady is my mother. The mystery lady is also Billie Holiday, who in so many ways reminds me of my mother. And I suppose the mystery lady is me."

James, who will sing songs from the album on her current tour, which stops at the Strand in Redondo Beach on Friday, is best known for her decidedly risque R & B presentations since her 1955 hit "The Wallflower" (given that title when the record company decided that the song's original name, "Roll With Me Henry," was just too suggestive). But her latest album shows her off as a serious ballad singer while providing a glimpse of the influences that guided her course as a vocalist.

On the phone from her home in Riverside, James explains the effect Holiday's music had on that preteen girl growing up in Los Angeles, and what it means to her today.

"In those days, we could only listen to what she was talking about and say, 'Yeah, right.' It was like somebody saying, 'Yeah, I hear you, but I don't know what you're saying.'

"I think about that song 'Don't Explain,' when she talks about lipstick on his collar"--here she breaks into song--" 'People will talk and you'll cheat, but that don't matter dear when you're with me.' When I was young, I thought, 'Are you kidding? Don't explain? Boy, she's open-minded.' But now I understand. I've walked in her moccasins."

The path that James has followed to this point hasn't always been straight and narrow. But her perseverance, from her teen-singer days in a trio known as the Peaches ("we were black, we were women, we were winning all the talent contests in town, but that wasn't making us any money") and her discovery by Johnny Otis to some two dozen crossover hits in the '60s and her battles with poverty and drug addiction, has finally had its rewards.

Her popularity soared again in the mid-'80s with the release of "The Early Show" and "The Late Show."

The last couple years have been particularly rewarding ones for James. She was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame last year. MCA has released "The Essential Etta James," a collection of her Chess-label recordings of the '60s and '70s, joining "R&B Dynamite" (Ace), a compilation that chronicles her earlier work, including "Wallflower."

The new album, minus the rollicking, bawdy numbers on which she's staked her career, is a bit of a gamble.

"There's going to be some controversy with this album," she said, "because it's more jazz. But I don't care what anybody else says."

James prefers that whatever else her life holds in store remain a mystery.

"I've never been the type to say 'Where am I going next?' or 'Will I win this Grammy or that?' Even when we were first starting out, I never thought what I'd be doing 50 years from now.

"People ask me what was it like in the fabulous '50s. Did you realize all the great things that were happening then? We didn't think anything about it at the time. It was just like fixing a plain old pot of greens and some corn bread. We didn't blow it out of proportion."

Etta James and the Roots Band appear tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (714) 496-8930, 8 p.m., $25 (Coco Montoya opens); and Friday at The Strand, 1700 S. Pacific Coast Highway, Redondo Beach, (310) 316-1700, 8:30 p.m., $25.

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