Thursday, February 05, 2009

At Last

Memo to the organizers of Sunday night's Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles: You might want to seat pop queen Beyonce and blues legend Etta James on opposite sides of the Staples Center. Ms. James is none-too-pleased with Beyonce's recent rendition of her standard, "At Last." In fact, the 71-year-old vocalist has threatened to "whoop Beyonce's a--," should the two happen to meet.

While we'd pay to watch that cat fight, a little background is in order. Beyonce played Etta James in the 2008 film Cadillac Records, which chronicled the rise of recording impresario Leonard Chess. Best known for promoting black artists when the major labels were lily-white, Mr. Chess is crediting with discovering such talents as Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and, of course, Ms. James.

Perhaps she was upset with the movie (which bombed at the box office), although James praised Beyonce when the film was first released. But that good will has apparently evaporated; before a show in Seattle last week, Ms. James took shots at both the pop diva and President Barack Obama. Not only did she vow to whip Beyonce's hindquarters, she also referred to Obama as "Your big-eared president," and said "He's not my president" at least twice. has the audio. It's remarkable, to say the least.

So, how does the president figure in all of this? In case you haven't heard, Beyonce serenaded the First Couple with her version of "At Last" at one of the Inaugural Balls last month. There's no indication that Ms James was invited to perform her signature song at the event, so it's no surprise that she's a bit upset. But if the tape is any indication, it sounds like Ms. James' disdain for Obama pre-dates the inauguration.

Needless to say, this little dust-up has created an indelicate situation in the recording industry and the MSM, where political correctness is the first order of business. As you might have guessed, coverage of the incident has been largely limited to the blogosphere, internet gossip sites and the entertainment media. A black artist criticizing her fellow performer--and the nation's first black president--is a matter they'd rather avoid.

After six decades in the music business--and personal battles against everything from racism to heroin addiction--it's rather doubtful that Etta James will apologize. As for Beyonce, her reps have declined comment. Apparently, they understand that it's poor form to pick on your musical elders, particularly one with the chops of Ms. James.

A member of the Rock & Roll, Blues, Rockabilly and Grammy Halls of Fame, Etta James is one of those performers who have met the test of time, and seem genuinely worthy of the "legend" title. Sustaining a music career for more than 50 years is no mean feat. She's earned the right to have her say.

Meanwhile, we wonder what would happen if a white performer--say, a country music artist--made similar remarks about Barack Obama. Can anyone say career suicide?

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