01/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Beyonce Sings Etta James? Maybe. Etta James Singing Etta James? Now We're Talking Immortal.

It is an unequivocal Good Thing that someone has made a movie -- Cadillac Records -- about the down-and-dirty Chicago music that began as blues and morphed into rock. Not enough of us know about Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Otis Spann and Little Walter. The early days of Chuck Berry are far too obscure.

Beyonce singing "At Last" and "I'd Rather Go Blind"?

Whatever your opinion of that star turn, I'm still beating a drum for the idea of the film -- Etta James should be at least as well known as Aretha Franklin.

As a singer, Etta James has more range than Montana. She began her career with heartbreaking ballads. She moved on to nasty and guttural. But in every period, her songs address the only topic worth caring about: love and loneliness. And on those topics, she had all the necessaries -- she was "born to sing the blues."

She was christened Jamesetta Hawkins by a mother who was 14 and completely uninterested in the parenting grind. She never knew who her father was (although, decades later, she was semi-reliably informed he was Minnesota Fats, the legendary pool hustler).

Her childhood, she said, was like a series of one-night stands; she was passed from relative to relative. At five, she joined a gospel choir in Los Angeles -- and was soon proclaimed a prodigy. At 15, she and two friends formed a vocal trio. They got noticed -- their recording of "Roll With Me, Henry" (a title so sexy it had to be renamed: "The Wallflower") went to #2 on the R&B charts. Etta was, at 16, touring with Little Richard.

It took her only a few more years to get to Chess Records, the Chicago-based label that knew how to get hits for blues musicians. At 22, Etta had a big voice -- and a big, brassy personality. And she had History; she'd been a professional musician for six years, she'd been around.

Leonard Chess liked "triangle" songs, and he found a great one for Etta's Chess debut: "All I Could Do Was Cry." The set-up: Etta watching her lover marry another woman. The refrain: "I was losing the man that I loved, and all I could do was cry." Etta needed only one take. When she was finished, she was crying -- and so were some of the engineers.

Success can be harder than failure, especially for musicians on endless tours. Etta used her money and her down time to take drugs. "Some people can't work high, but I can," she boasted. "I may be one of those singers who has enough power to overcome the fog and filters of drugs." She couldn't overcome the cost of drugs, however; she was arrested for writing bad checks. But she kept pumping out the hits: "I'd Rather Go Blind" and "Tell Mama." After a few lost years, Etta re-connected with Chess Records. By 1978, she was the opening act for the Rolling Stones.

I own most of the Etta James catalogue. I return to it often, for a woman who has lived this hard -- who loved and lost and paid the price for everything she got and a lot she didn't -- oozes the kind of wisdom you don't find in books. One title says it all: "If I Had Any Pride Left At All." Been there, felt that? Then she's inside your head, your heart -- hell, your arteries.

That's the thing about Etta: She has total credibility. She's lived the blues, and you'd best believe she's going to tell you about them, and in the bluntest (and thus, most poetic) way possible. (If you have ever seen Etta live, you know that she is, even in her dotage, a great deal raunchier than the new kids).

"The blues is my business, and business is good," she sings, and that's true of most the CDs she has released since 1989. I prefer these to the early, Chess hits; the production is cleaner, the songs are less pop. If you're making the complete tour, start with Tell Mama or The Definitive Collection, then skip ahead to Love"s Been Rough on Me, Life, Love and the Blues or Seven Year Itch.

These later CDs are marinated in jealousy, anger, revenge ("feel like breakin' up somebody's home"), lust -- this is Shakespearean stuff. The band rocks. Etta kills.

So lower the lights. Stop all conversation. This is an Immortal.

Cross-posted from