Two weeks ago Etta James’s death announcement went viral and her name appeared in as many urban blogs as mainstream news organizations as if she were an artist of more recent times than the ‘50’s. Beyonce’s portrayal of her time at Chess Records in the loosely autobiographical “Cadillac Records” reinvigorated James’ pop culture stock and ensured that her passing would not take obscure notice akin to so many of her peers like Brook Benton and Clyde McPhatter. James was lucky to live through all her career fluctuations and attain a certain kind of immortality reserved only for those who receive any kind of time as the subject of the silver screen. But in her passing she remembered her former economic struggles and those of fellow artists and her family requested that all donations made in her name goes to the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. When the non-profit had its first Pioneer Awards ceremony 24 years ago James was a member of the group honored and she later served on its board. Ruth Brown, who became a R&B heroine in 1950 with the song, “Teardrops From My Eyes,” started the foundation in 1988 with the help of attorney Howard Begle and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun.Their problem has easily become forgotten in the post-Puffy days of commercial hip-hop and R&B when numerous mainstream Black artists have created images of new wealth so pervasive it deserves its own genre. Brown’s nephew, Damon Williams, who is the chairperson of the organization, chatted with me about the relevance of James’s wish to bring light to the continued plight of the underpaid artist.
What is the role of the R&B foundation?
The role of the R&B foundation is to provide financial and/or medical assistance to artists from the rhythm and blues genre that are in need. Another role that we also play is to be an advocate for artists’ rights. The spirit of which the foundation was founded was in that artists from the generations of the ‘40’s, ‘50’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s many times in their recording agreements they didn’t necessarily receive their just share royalties, sales or performance royalties. When the foundation was founded it was founded actually by the efforts of my aunt Ruth Brown. Through my aunt’s efforts and a lot of other people, people like the lawyer Howard Begle, Bonnie Raitt, Congressman Mickey Leland, Ahmet Ertegun who eventually started off the foundation without a tremendous amount of funding. The foundation was set-up to be a resource for artists. So to this day we still are assisting many artists who just do not have the means. I’m also charged with trying to preserve the legacy of R&B music as part of American culture. So I think what you’re seeing coming from Etta James’s family is that appreciation of what the R&B Foundation has meant to Etta and her journey. I count Etta James as part of the fabric of what the foundation was founded on. She’s part of that generation that they had to fight for the right to sing this music. So Etta was awarded our Pioneer Award in 1989 she was one of our first award winners. She later served on our board and we’re so appreciative of her family for making that gesture. The website has been receiving all kinds of traffic. But that’s the basis of it. As you know rhythm and blues is the birth of rock and roll in this country.