Etta James vs. Sasha Fierce: Who's the tougher diva?

Apr 29, 2009 at 12:00 am

Awwww! We're a nation of apologists all right, saying exactly what's on our minds one minute and then furiously backpedaling the next because someone's feelings got hurt. Foobah! Etta James still has every right to be pissed, getting passed over to perform her signature song, "At Last," at President Obama's inauguration. Instead, the planners picked Beyoncé, a woman who just played Etta James in a movie. That's like giving Robert De Niro a Kennedy Center Award and sending Frank Caliendo to collect the prize.

OK, so B has a bigger Q factor with Sasha and Milea and probably even their dog named Bo. But here's where a little bipartisanship really could've worked — why didn't someone ask both ladies to sing that fershloogin' song and forever cement the link between the Obamas and the Camelot era in which Etta's original version was released? Why? Because that summit would've overshadowed Barack and Michelle's first dance and turned out bloodier than Chris Brown and Rhianna's last date, that's why!

Anyone who's read Etta's autobiography, Rage to Survive, knows she is one tough broad. But we've also since learned, in 2008 to be exact, that before going onstage, Beyoncé adopts an alter-ego named Sasha Fierce, a persona that she says "kind of protects me and who I really am." We say the only person Beyoncé kind of needs protection from, though, is Etta Fierce, who said during a Seattle show shortly after the snub, "Singing my song, she gonna get her ass whipped. The great Beyoncé! Now like I said, she ain't mine. I can't stand Beyoncé!" And she called Obama "big ears"! Where's the Secret Service positioned for this sniper fire?

Of course, now James is saying, "I didn't really mean anything. ... Even as a little child, I've always had that comedian kind of attitude." Or maybe something got a hold of her.

That said, what better reason than this to compare the fictitious exploits of Sasha Fierce, as evidenced by the lyric sheet to Beyoncé's recent album, with the real-life dramas of Etta James. I would rather go blind than to see ya walk away from this cat fight!

Tough teen entertainers

According to Sasha Fierce's diva résumé, "Since 15 in my stilettos been struttin' in this game/What's yo age was the question they asked when I hit the stage." But magically, even at this early exploitable juncture in her career, "she getting paid." And "her bed's made.

According to her autobiography, at age 14, Etta and her girl group auditioned for Johnny Otis — in his hotel room! Not sure if his bed was made. Soon after, they recorded an answer to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie" called "Roll With Me Henry" — and Otis sidestepped securing Etta's parental permission when he didn't tell mama all about it beforehand. Sample song lyric: "When the cats are balling, you better stop stalling." Whew! As Van Morrison would've said, "Fourteen years old! Fourteen years old!" Of course, Etta probably didn't get paid either for this salacious recording, but thanks for asking!

Running with a tough crowd

Beyoncé's always had Jay Z behind the scenes calling the shots. But this Sasha Fierce? Well, she's up in da club pretending she's a single lady with T-Pain who, by the looks of "Single Ladies," is about as gangsta as a wedding planner. Sample bluster: "Sure U ain't ready to party with the wife of Jay Z. (Can't understand this part lol)." Excuse me? LOL? Texting rappers? Somewhere Tupac is typing OMDB.

Simulated adultery? That's kid stuff, baby! Etta's first boyfriend she actually nicknamed "The Pimp" (and he was an ex-pimp). And, as a teen, Etta smoked weed and brandished firearms in the tour bus with a future jailbird, Detroit's own Little Willie John. Still later, she observed early mentor Billie Holiday's double-dose heroin shooting-up techniques.

Big ego

From Sasha's "I'm a Diva": "I know you read the paper, the one that they call a queen/ Every radio round the world know me/ Cause that's where I be."

Well, Etta was officially crowned the "Queen of Soul" two whole years before Aretha got any re-re-respect. And if Sasha thinks she's royalty now, note that even after apologizing for her catty comments, Queen Etta agreed with a writer that she could out-sing Beyoncé — "I think so. That's a shame to say that."

Diva vs. hustla techniques

Sasha maintains "Na-na-na, diva is a female version of a hustla." I repeat. "Of a hustla." That means she's serious about getting cash up front: "This is a stick-up, stick-up/ I need them bags uh that money/ You see them ask where that money/ All my ladies get it up/ I see you I do the same/ Take it to another level, no passengers on my plane." Is she talking about hijacking a jet with Destiny's Child?

In the '70s, Etta did jail and rehab time again and again for writing bad checks and forging prescriptions. If asked, the very direct Miss Peaches would probably elaborate that a diva is a female version of a full-blown heroin addict with a penchant for petty crime, booze, coke and violent, low-life men.


If Sasha were a boy, even just for a day, she'd "roll out of bed, throw on what I wanted and go drink beer with the guys and chase after girls" ... so that she could understand girls better and learn to be a better listener? Hey, that's wack-y!

Well, if Etta were a boy, even just for a day, she'd probably roll like Keith Richards, just because she could!

Body issues

In "Ego," Sasha says, "I walk like this 'cause I can back it up" and suggests that "Damn, I know I'm killing you with them legs." If that isn't murderously confident enough for you, on "Video Phone," she says you can video her ... naked ... with your phone. "Press record, baby, film me." Hell, that's as good as a signed release form in most states!

Etta had entirely different physiological concerns, however. Once she'd run out of unmarked veins, Etta shot up in her feet, hand, neck, groin and forehead. But at least it kept her slim. "How can I stay off heroin when it was making me stay off food? I was feeling desirable and sexy." Once she kicked heroin, though, her weight increased to more than 400 pounds and she needed a motorized wheelchair to get onstage during her concerts. In 2003, James underwent gastric bypass surgery and lost 200 pounds. Not counting the wheelchair.

Decision? You even have to ask?

Etta James plays Saturday, May 1, at the Sound Board in the Motor City Casino & Hotel, 2901 Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-237-7711.

Serene Dominic writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]