In 1974, when Donto James was 6, he went to visit his mother, R&B icon Etta James, in the Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital after she’d been sentenced to drug treatment instead of prison on a heroin charge. James hadn’t seen his 36-year-old mother for several months. He remembered that she walked down the hall wearing a clown nose and a wig. Because she had acted up, he said, doctors made her wear a diaper. On the back of the diaper were the words: “I’m a brat.”
“I sat there in shock but it was funny at the same time,” said James, now 44. “I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I was so glad to see her. It was the first time I had seen her in a long time.”
James, with the golden voice full of both heartache and redemption, became one of the most influential singers of her time. Known for her bluesy riffs and slow-burning melodies, she inspired singers like Christina Aguilera and Bonnie Raitt.
But the woman with a fierce, stubborn streak spent much of her life fighting off personal demons, including drug addiction, troubles with the law, and bouts of poverty.
“Addiction was a part of her life,” said Donto James, speaking exclusively to The Daily Beast about his famous mother, whose last few years were marred by legal battles between her husband Artis Mills and her two sons over control of her finances. “But the addiction is what made her.”
Suffering from dementia, leukemia, and kidney problems, the “At Last” singer died in January of 2012. Discovery will be airing the story of Etta James and the family drama surrounding her estate on ID’s series, The Will: Family Secrets Revealed, on Nov. 15.
James, real name Jamesetta Hawkins, was born in Los Angeles to a teenage mother during World War II. She described her mother as a scam artist and drug addict who left her to be raised by a foster mother until the age of 12. She didn’t know her father, but believed throughout her life that he was Minnesota Fats, the renowned billiards player.
She was discovered in 1954 by bandleader Johnny Otis, who spotted her singing on a San Francisco street corner. In the 1950s, she toured with Bobby Vinton, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Everly Brothers, and recorded a number of hits, including “Trust in Me,” “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” “Sunday Kind of Love,” “All I Could Do Was Cry,” and her most famous ballad, “At Last.”
By the time Donto was born in 1968, his mother’s career had stalled because of her addictions. While she was in and out of rehab, he lived with his grandmother. “My grandmother didn’t have a house,” he said. “She was kind of like a vagabond. She never had a solid place to stay. We would live in and out of motels and cars.” His alcoholic father was never around.
His mother’s addictions were kept secret from him. “My grandmother would keep certain things secret; she wouldn’t tell me exactly what was going on,” he said. “She would say that my mother wasn’t feeling well at the time.”
He moved back home with his mother in her house in South Los Angeles when he was 9. Because she was only getting periodic gigs, the singer was struggling financially.
“People tended to think that because my mother was Etta James I must have had a great life with caviar and steaks every night, but it wasn’t like that,” he said. “We were poor and broke. We were lucky to get Spam sandwiches and frosted flakes for desert. We are talking about eating cereal in water but we always had a roof over our heads. It wasn’t like we were starving. We did all right.”
There were still plenty of perks, he recalled. He regularly tagged along with his mother when she went on tour, had a chat about drugs with Keith Richards, acted as his mother’s bodyguard when he was 12 and refused to allow Mick Jagger to see her, and hung out with her famous friends such as Sly Stone, who lived in a house where the former owner killed his entire family. “She didn’t take me to every party, but when there was no one to keep me I would go along and do my thing as a kid. She appointed someone there to hang with me. There was a lot of laughter and good times.”
By the early ’80s, James’s career was back on track. The saucy and self-possessed singer had kicked her cocaine drug habit and hired a new manager, Lupe De Leon. “She was walking down the street crying, and had an epiphany, and she said, ‘I can’t do this,’ at that point things started picking up and that is when her career started to go forward,” he said.
She moved her family from her home in South Angeles to Riverside, Calif. “That was a big deal for us,” he said.
“We would go up to play first, and we would always wonder if she was going to come out. I would say, ‘Why do you do that?’ and she would say, ‘Just to mess with you.’”
James’s career flourished in the 1990s under De Leon’s management. Donto joined her band as a drummer. She won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance in 1994.
“People saw that she looked great and the calls started coming in for her,” he said. “Things started picking up. We traveled to Europe and everywhere.”
Donto recalled flying to Denver with his mother and they were informed the landing gear had malfunctioned. “My mom was looking out the window and we saw the fire trucks. She started praying and got mad and started cursing: ‘I don’t know why I came out here that damn Lupe is sitting in the office and I am about to crash into the ground.’”
But by the late 1990s, the 5-foot-3 singer’s weight, which topped 400 pounds, began to prevent her from performing. In 2001, she underwent gastric bypass surgery at a clinic run by Hollywood weight-loss surgeon Dr. Mathias Fobi, whose patients include Roseanne Barr and American Idol judge Randy Jackson.
In January of 2008, James was ready for the road again, but questions surrounding her mental health began to surface. De Leon began to plan a 20-show U.S. tour, but it got off to a rocky start because of what some people called James’s erratic behavior, and just days before the tour was scheduled to begin, she signed over her power of attorney to Donto in the event she became incapacitated. According to De Leon’s statements in court filings, Etta apparently had “moved in with her son Donto, and filed for divorce” from Artis Mills, who was also her road manager.
“Observing Etta’s behavior at the time, I was not sure that she would be able to make the tour,” said De Leon in the court filings. Donto, who was with his mother during that time, said her behavior was not erratic as some claimed.
During the tour, James made headlines after she informed a Seattle crowd in February of 2009 that Beyoncé, who portrayed her in the 2008 film Cadillac Records, deserved to have her “ass whupped” for singing James’s 1961 hit “At Last” at President Obama’s Inaugural Ball.
Two months later, James made an appearance on Dancing With the Stars as a guest performer.
However, the singer had to cancel several of her shows—including one at the Hollywood Bowl. Even so, James earned $300,000 for the 2009 tour.
“They tried to question her competency and she was like that for years and years,” he said. “She was the type who would cancel a gig just like that. She wasn’t all of a sudden acting erratic.”
Donto said his mother’s behavior wasn’t a sign of early dementia as some believed—it was just her personality, and her ability to hold a grudge. “It was always resentment-based,” he said. He said she turned down a gig playing at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration ceremony on the morning of the concert because she felt she wasn’t getting paid enough. “She woke up in the morning and said, ‘I have a headache. I am not doing [the show].’ That was how she was. She did what she wanted to do. She would dwell on things. She didn’t want to be taken advantage of and she would get resentful of certain things and she would act on it.”
Donto said he didn’t know until the last minute whether his mother would perform or not. “We would go up to play first, and we would always wonder if she was going to come out,” he said. “I would say, ‘Why do you do that?’ and she would say, ‘Just to mess with you.’”
Donto said his mother would have urinary tract infections that would debilitate her physically and mentally and make it impossible for her to perform. “She would do her job but sometimes it was a little rough,” he said. During a performance on a Mexican cruise in 2005, he said, she “forgot her words and when she got back to her room she was hallucinating.”
James’s behavior at the time—which ranged from strange comments to cancellations—and her inability to make decisions became the heart of the family saga.
Things heated up in November of 2010 when Mills, James’s husband of 41 years and her tour manager, filed a petition to gain access to three of the singer’s bank accounts, estimated to total around $1 million. He said he needed to pay for her business affairs and mounting medical bills. Mills said he spent around $30,000 a month for private medical care, which included two full-time nurses and a round-the-clock doctor.
The following month, Donto asked that the court appoint an independent administrator to handle her finances.
“During my mother’s working life, she set aside bank accounts for herself and gave Artis Mills the other half of her earnings,” he wrote to a Riverside County judge. “She did this because she did not trust Artis Mills and wanted to keep her half of her monies separate. Having received all the money given to him by my mother, Artis Mills now wishes to invade her accounts and dispose of this money as well.”
Donto also questioned whether his mother was getting proper care by the live-in doctor. “I felt she needed to go to the hospital to get treated,” he said. “Tests needed to be run. There were times I felt she needed to be in hospital and be checked out and not stay at home.”
Later, a Riverside judge ruled that Mills would remain as the conservator of her estate.
On January 20, paramedics rushed the 73-year-old, blonde songstress to Park View Hospital at 6 p.m. from her ranch-style home in Riverside County after she went into cardiac arrest. She died in Donto’s arms.
“Me and her grandkids will carry on her legacy,” said Donto. “They are singing and playing instruments now. She has a granddaughter who looks exactly like her.
I miss the conversations we had and I miss her attitude and the crazy things she would do. I miss playing with her.”