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In unpublished interview, Etta James talks about performing in Baltimore, Sam Cooke, and her legacy

Sam CookeEtta James

In 2007, legendary singer Etta James was booked for the PAETEC Jazz Festival in downtown Baltimore. I interviewed her a few weeks before the show -- but she later had to back out due to health problems. Here is part of the interview, which was never published before. Apparently, when James used to play Baltimore back in the '50s and '60s, she was quite the target.

Etta, do you have any memories of Baltimore from back in the day?

I used to go to Baltimore at least two or three times a year, at the Royal Theatre. Remember that theater? Now that was a bum theater. Everybody that ever went there would be terrified to go. 'Where are you working?' 'Oh, I'm working at the Royal Theatre in Baltimore. And then I'd go to the Howard Theatre in Washington.' There was one more -- we called them the funky three.

They were the funkiest theaters because people would come in there with pickles, with olives, with boiled eggs and get ready to throw all kinds of stuff at you. And the thing is, they used to throw the stuff. It wasn't heartbreaking to people like me or Sam Cooke. It was the older entertainers that didn't understand. 'Why are they going to be throwing popcorn at me?'

Everybody knew, 'Oh boy, here's Baltimore.' When I pulled up, I knew the vegetable stores were going to make a little money that week. Tomatoes -- it didn't matter. If they'd get you really good, like, get you in the face, or on your body, I would just laugh about it.

Baltimore was always a really raunchy city, compared to Washington D.C. But in Baltimore, I would just be waiting for 'em. I'd say, 'Well my hair's blonde but tonight it's going to be tomato red when we leave here.'

Do you care what other people say about you?

Really, truthfully, I don't. When you see me on stage, you think I'm cool, because to me, I'm cool. I stand back and say, 'Now wait a minute, am I standing cool enough? Am I sitting on this stool really cool, or am I going to fall off?' Then they'd really have a show.

People say you put on a better show sitting in a chair than most performers do standing up.

I had to sit and sing for five years. To sit and sing, when you're a really emotional person like I am, that's not cool for me. I'm not standing, the blood is not rushing from my toes to my head and back out to my arms and my fingers. If I'm standing up, I can feel the blood pumping. But if I'm sitting down, I just feel like a chump. Here I am, sitting my fat self up here, and I shouldn't even be up here. Now, I don't have to. I can drag my chair over, and get up on it halfway. You know how you sit on a halfway stool -- you sit on the side. That's being extra cool, I guess.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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