Hungarian glamour puss Zsa Zsa Gabor, at the height of her plastic surgery-enhanced pulchritude in the 1950s. Now a 94-year old bed-bound recluse and married to a seriously dodgy ersatz Euro-trash “prince”, Gabor’s life these days is a welter of lawsuits, health problems and accusations of abuse, neglect and exploitation - like something out of Sunset Boulevard or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?Vanity Fair memorably explored the whole macabre and sordid story in 2007. It’s gotten even weirder since then.
Another great (sold-out!) night for Dr Sketchy at The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, this time featuring vampirically elegant emcee Dusty Limits and two seriously impressive new models / performers, Hotcake Kitty and Rose Thorne.
I’m pretty voluble about The RVT being officially my favourite venue to DJ at: the sound is thunderously loud (which is good, because the music is punctuated on a regular basis by police sirens screeching past outside. Vauxhall must be one dangerous neighbourhood!), and as an added bonus there is a big pump-top bottle of hand sanitizer gel in the DJ booth. I’m a pretty obsessive-compulsive hand washer and having this bottle of hand washing gel there is almost orgasmic for me. (I think I probably scrub my hands between changing each CD. If the management wonders about the rate of this bottle being decimated, now they know!).
For her performance the brunette Kitty (or should that be “Hotcake”?) wore an orange chiffon harem girl ensemble with Siouxsie Sioux/Cleopatra eye make-up and Bettie Page bangs. Music-wise, this raised a whole realm of possibilities. It was a fun opportunity to delve into Eastern belly dancer exotica kitsch and I really seized it. Eartha Kitt’s campy Turkish delight “Uska Dara” obviously seemed de rigueur. Every time I play Les Baxer’s apocalyptic, sex-wracked "Lust", everyone understandably assumes the astonishing multi-octave female voice wordlessly growling, grunting and screaming is Yma Sumac. Instead it belongs to the deeply obscure operatic chanteuse Bas Sheva (as in “Bathsheba”). “Lust” comes from Baxter’s 1954 album The Passions, on which he and Bas Sheva dramatically explore a different emotion on each song (the other titles include “Despair”, “Ecstasy”, “Hate”, “Terror”, “Jealousy” and “Joy”). Unfortunately, The Passions was a flop, Bas Sheva never recorded again and would die aged only 34 from diabetes-related causes. Tragic – as judging by this, she was the equal of Yma Sumac. Anyway, every time I play "Lust", I like to think Bas Sheva lives again! Even after Kitty's pose, I continued the exotica vibe into the break with a bossa nova version of "Misirlou" and Yma Sumac's delirious mambo, "Taki Rari."
Hotcake Kitty. Photo by Andrew Hickinbottom
I've posted this before, but hell, it's a good excuse to post it again: Eartha Kitt slithering her serpentine way through "Uska Dara" in a 1967 TV special
Rose Thorne’s act, meanwhile, saw her costumed as an Indian squaw (complete with black braided wig and Adam Ant white stripe painted across her nose) -- think Pocahontas with massive knockers! Thematically, this posed more of a challenge than Kitty’s outfit – but I did play “Commanche” by The Revels! If only I had “Apache” by The Shadows! Otherwise, I tried to evoke a sinister atmosphere for the rest of her poses with songs that could maybe the soundtrack to a Santeria or Candomblé voodoo ritual: think of Esquerita’s wailing and knuckle-dragging piano, unearthly Theremin (“Sinner” by Freddie and The Hitchhikers), a deranged version of "She is My Witch" (The Earls of Suave), Edith Piaf’s vibrato at full-throttle (“Jezabel”).
Rose Thorne. Photo by Andrew Hickinbottom
Elsewhere, I went heavy on the grinding tittyshakers and frantic rhythm and blues – both of which are always rowdy/sleazy crowd-pleasers. I always say that even if the audience don’t know who, say, Big Maybelle, LaVerne Baker or Ruth Brown is, they instinctively respond to the gritty earth mother warmth, sex appeal and soulfulness of the great female black American rhythm and blues voices.
That definitely applies to Etta James. I’ve meant to write something about the former Jamesetta Hawkins ever since her death on 20 January 2012 (just short of her 74th birthday). I’ll come straight out and admit am not a massive fan of James’s best-known music (“At Last”, “I Just Wanna Make Love to You”, forever tarred by association with that awful Diet Coke ad). The only album of hers I ever owned was her 1968 classic Tell Mama, which I had when I was still a university student, and I either sold or gave it away long ago. I’m just not keen on polished 1960s soul music as a whole – I’m more of a desperate 1950s rhythm and blues man. But I can’t fail to be moved by James’s belting heartbreaker voice and her hard-bitten, tough-as-nails, heroin-ravaged life story fascinates me (I need to snap up a used copy of Rage to Survive, her 1995 autobiography on Amazon at some point). Obviously I need to delve deeper into James’s discography as she had a long career and there are inevitably gems I’m missing out on. I do regularly play her raunchy 1955 breakthrough hit “Roll with Me, Henry” at Dr Sketchy. (I also like to play Ann-Margret’s poppy, cotton candy-fluffy cover version “Dance with Me, Henry” – it’s enough to horrify any rhythm and blues purist!).
Justifiably, there have been some glowing appraisals of James’s career since her death. The two best, most heartfelt obituaries I’ve read were in London’s The Guardian and New York’s The Village Voice. The Guardian’s Garth Cartwright nicely summarizes James’s life and career thus:
“Her approach to both singing and life was throughout one of wild, often desperate engagement that included violence, drug addiction, armed robbery and highly capricious behaviour. James sang with unmatched emotional hunger and a pain that can chill the listener. The ferocity of her voice documents a neglected child, a woman constantly entering into bad relationships and an artist raging against an industry and a society that had routinely discriminated against her.”
He also astutely notes that perhaps the reason James never enjoyed much mainstream commercial success was because “perhaps her voice, so raw and emotionally expressive, was too fierce for the general public. Indeed, hurt, anger and self-destructive behavior boiled beneath the surface of her vocals. Once asked to describe her style, she responded that singing allowed her to vent "all this bitch shit inside of me"”. “All this bitch shit inside of me” – how succinct and beautiful is that? I expect that angst was also what motivated the likes of Nina Simone and Lydia Lunch, similarly volatile and turbulent artists.
In The Village Voice, Carol Cooper’s account of the very young James, at the start of her career, being advised by the doomed Billie Holiday (from “fatherless wild child to fatherless wild child”) when her life and career were circling the drain, gives me goose bumps. Cooper is also great on nailing what an “intimidating package of jailbait mojo” the gutsy and talented mixed race teenager must have been when she was discovered by visionary R&B kingpin Johnny Otis aged just 14. (James lied to Otis, telling him she was 18. Her own mother, Dorothy Hawkins, had given birth to Etta when she herself was only 14. When she was still just 16, James dated BB King and she later believed she was the inspiration for his song “Sweet Sixteen”).
Cooper argues that with the timing of the sassy “Roll with Me Henry”, “Otis coincidentally established James as a rock and roll rebel alongside the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis.” Reading this passage in particular brought a tear to my eye:
“Sexually active long before cutting her first single, James had both the pipes and the real-life experience to play a bad girl with a heart of gold on record. No aspect of street life was a mystery to her; her entourage often included drag queens, gangsters, gang chicks and prostitutes. Married to the same man since 1969, and a supportive mother to her two adult sons, Etta was also a student of bourgeois propriety and understood the thin line between sin and salvation better than most. She adored Little Richard, with whom she did her first national tour and who she respected for having "the guts to be a king and queen all at the same time.""
Can you imagine what it must have been like hanging out with Etta James and Little Richard backstage in the 1950s – the debauchery?! And James also never mellowed: even as a 60-something blues mama pensioner when her health was shot and she used crutches to walk, she continued to do stripper squats and grab her crotch onstage. What a woman. It’s wrenching to think that for her last album (2011’s The Dreamer), James pulled herself together while suffering from both the leukaemia that would kill her and dementia to make one powerful final statement worthy of her reputation. Performers this tough and durable simply don’t exist anymore.
But I’m also deeply superficial, so I also love Etta James for her signature 1960s look. The artifice of the blonde bouffant wigs, the wild black eyeliner and weird eyebrows and the feather boas were deliberately trashy, almost drag queen-y and punk before its time. She was also frankly, defiantly fat (which makes the idea of Beyonce portraying her in the 2008 film Cadillac Records so risible. At one point James weighed 300 pounds. Much later in life -- once she'd finally kicked her heroin addiction -- she had a gastric band operation and slimmed down dramatically). In short, Etta James had freak appeal: she looked like a character from a John Waters film. Obviously Waters cast Ruth Brown as Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray, but Etta James could just have easily played the role.
A blonde-wigged Etta James ripping it up on TV in the 1960s. A nice way to remember her
(The original video I posted here was better, but got deleted from Youtube! Here's a replacement that fits!)
I Just Don't Understand - Ann-Margret Unchain My Heart - Florence Joelle's Kiss of Fire Oui je veux - Johnny Hallyday Little Ole Wine Drinker Me - Robert Mitchum Good Grief - The Revels Oo Ba La Baby - Mamie Van Doren Woman Love - Gene Vincent Iced Tea - The Capers Last Night - Lula Reed Yogi - The Bill Black Combo Tidal Wave - Sonny Gee & The Standels Here Comes the Bug - The Rumblers He's The One - Ike and Tina Turner The Sneak - Jimmy Oliver Pass the Hatchet - Roger and The Gypsies The Flirt - Shirley and Lee Greasy Chicken - Andre Williams Wino - Jack McVea No More, No Less - Carmen Taylor Sweetie Pie - Eddie Cochran I Was Born to Cry - Johnny Thunders and Patti Paladin Tear Drops from My Eyes - Ruth Brown I'll Drown in My Own Tears - Lula Reed Directly from My Heart - Little Richard Fool I Am - Pat Ferguson Night Scene - The Rumblers Mexican - The Fentones La Bamba - Eartha Kitt Peter Gunn Twist - The Jesters Catwalk - Jack Constanzo Uska Dara - Eartha Kitt Caravan - John Buzon Trio I Love How You ... Lydia Lunch Shangri-La - Spike Jones New Band Monkey Bird - The Revels The Maharajah of Megador - The Blue Echoes Lust - Les Baxter Misirlou - Laurindo Almeida and The Bossa Nova All-Stars Taki Rari - Yma Sumac La Javanaise - Serge Gainsbourg Love for Sale - Hildegard Knef Drums A Go-Go - The Hollywood Persuaders La Java - Juliette Greco Commanche - The Revels Esquerita and the Voola - Esquerita She's My Witch - The Earls of Suave Jezabel - Edith Piaf Boss - The Rumblers Sinner - Freddie and the Hitchikers Boots - Nero and The Gladiators Crawlin' - The Untouchables Black Tarantula - Jody Reynolds Drummin' Up a Storm - Sandy Nelson Hulla Hulla Lulu - Beecher Hickman When Love Goes Wrong - Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell The Beast - Milt Buckner Hand Clapping Time - The Fabulous Raiders Roll with Me, Henry - Etta James Beat Party - Ritchie and The Squires Tornado - Dale Hawkins Begin the Beguine - Billy Fury Tall Cool One - The Wailers You Can't Stop Her - Bobby Marchan The Girl Can't Help It - Little Richard Fever - Timi Yuro