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A lady sings the blues

The legendary Etta James expands her chops and her repertoire

At age 65, Etta James is living her 1961 hit, 'At Last.'

James is a triple-threat diva Ñ in blues, soul and rock 'n' roll Ñ much like Aretha Franklin. And she has fabulous jazz chops as well, which puts her in a class of her own.

She's seen it all and done it all, as her hair-raising 1995 autobiography 'Rage to Survive' attests. Written with David Ritz, James recounts wrong turns into drugs, alcohol, bad men, poor financial planning and petty crime, all in alarming detail.

But despite her near-disasters, James has worked continuously for 50 years, and each telling experience added another facet to the complex and powerful performer she has become. Fifty-two albums and a couple of Grammy awards prove that she was headed in the right direction.

This blues legend headlines the 16th annual Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival with her Roots Band Ñ which includes her sons Donto and Sametto on drums and bass. Appropriately, James, who has played Portland regularly over the years, crowns the Women in Blues theme for this year. Knee surgery and weight loss have eliminated the need for the wheelchair and stage seat she used in the past.

James takes a moment to talk from her home in Riverside, Calif. She's relaxed and chatty as her five grandchildren run through the house.

'Why do they all come at one time?' she wonders. 'I love them all and I always said that because I was an only child, I wanted a large family Ñ but sometimes I wish my kids would come and pick them up!'

Born in Los Angeles, Jamesetta Hawkins (you see where her name came from) began singing professionally at 15 as a member of a group called the Peaches. She then worked for bandleader Johnny Otis and later as a soul singer for Chicago's Chess Records. Her first hit was the suggestive 'Roll With Me Henry' in 1957 Ñ which was bowdlerized into 'The Wallflower.' Another version called 'Dance With Me Henry' went to No. 1 for Georgia Gibbs.

But Chess Records got her on track with 'At Last,' 'Stop the Wedding' and the chilling 'I'd Rather Go Blind.' 'At Last' Ñ for which she is perhaps best known Ñ was first recorded by Glenn Miller in 1941. There are dozens of versions, but hers is the classic Ñ and is credited with revitalizing the Jaguar Cars marketing campaign in the 1990s.

When the soul boom waned, James struggled with drugs in the '70s and '80s but rallied strongly with the album 'Seven Year Itch' in 1989. Now she alternates her records between blues and jazz.

'Blue Gardenia' opened atop the jazz charts in 2001, and 'Burnin' Down the House' did the same on the blues charts last year.

James' latest album is 'Let's Roll' Ñ it's a collection of rock 'n' roll, R & B and country songs she selected, but she's less happy with the cover, which shows her looking formal next to a Rolls Royce.

'I wanted a Cadillac with big fins and me with a backward baseball cap,' she says.

James is much happier with her recent publicity photos, which show her dressed to kill on a leopard-skin sofa. 'Do you think I look glamorous?' she asks, laughing.

She's mostly singing blues these days and credits the resurgent popularity of blues to Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was tragically killed in a 1990 helicopter crash.

'Blues has been coming back since Stevie's death, it's really happening,' James says. But she adds that her new album also veers into rock 'n' roll and country.

'I always wanted to be one of the first black women to go country,' she says. 'Vince Gill, Waylon Jennings, Clint Black and George Jones; they're singing to me. I always wanted to do those kind of songs.'

James does just one tour a year now, but she adds a lot of shorter journeys to places such as Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and back to the House of Blues in Los Angeles.

'I'm still a raunchy person,' she says. 'I like working big places where lots of people love my music.'

And James is still having fun.

'Maybe more now than ever,' she says. 'I know more about my audiences; I know what to sing. I can be singing for two and three generations, and I'll have something in my repertoire for all of them.'

As a parting note, she has advice for anybody following her path in music.

'Watch out for drugs and people who aren't going to treat you right,' she says. 'Get somebody good to represent you, get a good roadie and a good manager Ñ and watch your money.'

Mostly, don't get too excited 'or you'll overshoot the runway,' James says, citing Norah Jones as a good example of how to view the business:

'I met her at the Grammys, and I found out I was one of her role models. She's definitely one of those people who knows what to do Ñ even though she's young and pretty and innocent. I asked her if she loved show business and she said, 'No, not really.' That's what let me know she was cool.'

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