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.
Do contemporary R&B artists have these same compensation issues?
While artists can be more educated I think the same challenges are there. I think the way the road was paved by my aunt and Etta and all the other pioneers gave people the opportunity where look not even be able to collect royalties for singing at a venue. A lot of people forget that these artists paved the way for artists to have more opportunities. Beyonce obviously played Etta in “Cadillac Records” and from all the statements Beyonce has made about Etta you can see the deep appreciation she has for what Etta went through. I think it’s about keeping that story alive and it’s our job to get that younger generation to connect. It’s a challenge to get people to understand history in general. That’s our challenge and we’re up to it.
Do you feel that today’s R&B artists have benefitted because of the successes of hip-hop? That in some way the constant interaction between the two genres has increased the fortunes of R&B?
I don’t want to totally separate R&B from hip-hop. Of course we are the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Gospel is the foundation of all music in this country. I think to the credit of artists today whether they be hip-hop or R&B, they’ve done a tremendous job of becoming entrepreneurs. Many of them have took the lessons of Ruth and others of them and said ‘Look I’m gonna own my publishing, I’m going to own my brand and be able to develop my brand beyond just my music career.” But I think it’s important for that generation to understand that again there’s a lot of people who paved the way for you to be able to have that opportunity to understand the business on a much different level. I think r&b and hip-hop are connected together the generation that we have out there today have certainly benefitted from these pioneers. There’s hip-hop pioneers who have not benefitted financially. Hip-hip artists from the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s who are in need in the same way as artists from the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. That’s why I believe this foundation is so important because I believe it is a model for our community.
What is the vision of the R&B Foundation?
Our vision is to create programs that are going to educate and impact the next generation or artists and also music fans. We are looking to strengthen our ability to create awareness that the foundation is there for artists in need. It’s very challenging sometimes to communicate with artists from certain generations. These artists did not grow-up with email and social networks etc. they’re elderly. We just finished helping an artist very recently and it’s a process to find them and help them. What I’m actually looking for is help from today’s artists to help us create that awareness that the foundation is here as a learning resource and financial resource. We’ve had some artists, Neo for example, who has done some promos for our website and Robin Thicke, Rihanna and others. That type of support is great and we need more support like that to create that awareness. Our vision is really to complete our mission of making sure that any artist from this generation can find support or help from us and also we want to expand that now to artists from the ‘80’s and even into the ‘90’s because now that generation is becoming the next generation of artists that may or may not gotten all the support they needed in their recording career.
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How and why did Etta James become one of the first pioneers the foundation chose to honor?
I wasn’t involved with the foundation at that time but when you look at the list you know my aunt was one of the first pioneers award winners. So in 1989 it was Lavern Baker, Charles Brown, Ruth Brown, The Clovers, Etta James, Little Jimmy Scott, Percy Sledge and Mary Wells. Etta is from that generation from the late ‘50’s early ‘60’s so I just think it’s that she’s Etta James and she’s an R&B pioneer and you don’t have many of the voices we have today. I know talking to my aunt the foundation meant the world to her she was just very passionate about ensuring that not only all the well-known artists but people like Jimmy Scott who were critical to R&B and the formation of rock got their just dues.
What do you think is Etta James’ legacy to R&B?
I think it’s her spirit I think that generation of artists were able to through their music translate the words of the song in a way that I don’t know we’ll ever see again. Her interpretation of those lyrics is unprecendented I think her ability to translate through generations is powerful she obviously has songs that have been sampled today. There’s only one Etta James, there’s only one Ruth Brown you can’t duplicate their spirit.
How can an artist receive support from the foundation?
They can certainly call us our phone number is 215-985-4822. Or they can go to our website which is http://www.rhythmblues.org/ and on the website there’s an actual grant application that can be downloaded for assistance and from there we can start the process of trying to help them.
Will you have a Pioneer Award tribute to anyone this year?
No. We’re not having one this year but I should mention that next year 2013 will be our 25th anniversary and we’re planning an event now that would highlight and celebrate that fact.