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‘I’m the little girl that used to come see you in Tulsa’: Janis Joplin on her hero Etta James

Etta James
Etta James

Felix Hernandez: Janis Joplin as a little girl came to see you, you told me one time.

Etta James:  Right, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There was a place called the Big Ten Ballroom there. I used to work there at least maybe twice a year. And I remember when we would go there, I would go in the early afternoon to try to get set up there in the dressing room. I remember seeing this little white girl, she must have been about 12 or 13 years old, and I thought that this little girl was the child of the people who owned the Big Ten Ballroom. She would be there and she'd be sitting in the back because we would come in through the back.

Then when I was getting ready to rehearse for some rock stuff in Los Angeles, I noticed this lady was sitting over in the corner and she kind of looked like a bag lady like they look today. But now that I'm thinking about it, she wasn't really looking like a bag lady, she was looking like a hippie with her velvet and the layers of clothes and things and shaggy hair.

So I said to my drummer, a guy who used to play with the Byrds, “Greg, don't people know that this is a closed session? What is she doing here?” And he said, “Hey, Etta, don't you know who she is?” And I said, “No, I don't.” He said, “That's Janis Joplin.” And she got up at that point and started to walk towards us to say, “What's going on?” She knew we were saying something because I guess she got paranoid. She said, “Don't you remember me?” And I said, “No, I don't.” She said, I'm the same little girl that used to come to the, to see you in Tulsa at the Big 10 ballroom that used to sit in the back. And I went, “Oh yeah, I remember you.”

Janis Joplin - Cry Baby (Official Audio)

You finally got to do some jazz material for your last two CDs. Mystery Lady and Time After Time are almost entirely made up of those standards that we were talking about earlier. In fact, Mystery Lady was your first Grammy winner, correct?

My first one and only one, right? Forty years. I hope I don't have to wait forty more years for one, but if I don't get another one, it's alright. I'm just happy to be here.

Fool That I Am

My guest is Etta James, and the book is called Rage to Survive, written with David Ritz. Did you enjoy working with David? He did that wonderful biography of Marvin Gaye, as some of our listeners might know.

Yes, I did. I loved working with him, because I chose him. At first it was a lady involved, but then I talked with him, and he seemed to be like a therapist, you know what I mean? Sometimes I would get so wound up by some of the things that I was saying that I needed to just get that out. He would help me understand that that it wasn't bad for me to talk about those things, like some of the things I mentioned in there about myself and my manager stealing the musicians’ instruments at the time when I was a junkie. Now I feel bad, but I don't feel bad because I wrote about it. I feel that I was able to get that out and I did that. So it's kind of like confession, you know what I mean?

What about this title, Rage to Survive? What is that all about?

Well, Felix, you should know. Did you ever see the rage? Didn't I do something the last time I was here that I went off or something? I'm always doing something.

I've never seen you go off. I've seen you so many times and to me, you always seem like such a mellow, relaxed person. I don't see this wild child that you’re always talking about.

Oh God, well everybody else sees it and I think that people can really make me do that. Phony people, people that are too much in my face… I think that's just my way of not dealing with…just like I don't go to the Grammys or I don't go to those award shows. I don't like that kind of stuff. That's, I think, what my rage is about. I just don't want to be made to do something that I don't want to do. And I'm not trying to be difficult. Like, people say, “Oh, so you're the difficult one.”


Etta James died January 20th, 2012, five days before her 74th birthday. My thanks to Etta James for years of friendship and music.

Listen above.

Tell Mama

Recommended Tracks

 “Tell Mama”
“I'd Rather Go Blind” (Chess version)
“Feeling Uneasy”
“Piece of My Heart” (from Deep in the Night)
“Damn Your Eyes” (from Seven Year Itch)

I'd Rather Go Blind

Felix Hernandez started his career as a producer and radio journalist while in college. In the 1980’s, Felix independently produced the award-winning radio series BluesStage, which had a 6 year run on over 200 NPR stations. He also worked extensively as a journalist with WBEZ in Chicago, and NPR.