Singer Etta James lived by her own rules
January 27, 2012
Doug Moe writes about Madison and
the people who make it a unique place. His column runs Mondays,
Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays in the State Journal.
One of the last times Etta James played
Madison, maybe the last time, June 2002, she was 20 minutes late taking
the stage at the Barrymore.
James, who died last Friday at 73, was a
supremely talented and versatile singer who could handle blues, jazz,
rock and pop with equal ease. Her New York Times obituary quoted a Times
critic saying James had "one of the great voices in American popular
She was also a formidable presence who
lived by her own rules.
On that 2002 Madison visit, James' tour
bus stopped at New Orleans Take Out on Fordem Avenue. James remained on
the bus, and owner John Roussos took out some food to her. She had
health issues that made pralines a bad idea, but the singer wanted
pralines, and Roussos brought pralines.
"I felt guilty," Roussos was saying this
week. "But what are you going to say to Etta James?"
My favorite James story — it touches on
timeliness and rules — comes courtesy of David Wandel, a Madison
business and nonprofit consultant who in 1989 was living in St. Louis
and consulting for Contemporary Productions, which produced concerts and
other events out of its St. Louis office.
Wandel, 66, who is originally from
Chicago, moved from Missouri to Madison with his wife, Mary, in the late
In 1989, the couple was in St. Louis.
Wandel had just begun consulting with Contemporary, which had booked
Etta James into the Westport Playhouse for an Oct. 14 show.
Wandel was in the audience for the show,
which began with a comedian who told jokes, got a nice round of applause
and exited the stage. A few minutes later, however, he was back. He said
the theater was experiencing technical difficulties, and he told more
The audience began rustling and calling
for James. Wandel left his seat and sought out the woman from
Contemporary Productions who was in charge of the evening.
She explained that the Contemporary vice
president who was supposed to have arrived at the theater with $5,000 in
cash for James and her band was nowhere to be found.
James, in a downstairs dressing room,
was declining to take the stage without getting paid first.
It developed that the Contemporary man
with the cash had been traveling and returned to St. Louis that day to
find himself locked out of his house. The cash was inside. The man
decided to try to go in a window. Instead, he fell off the sill and
knocked himself unconscious.
"He turned out to be OK," Wandel noted,
"with a slight concussion."
But he wasn't going to be at the
Westport Playhouse with $5,000 anytime soon. Neither could anyone reach
the two men who founded and owned Contemporary Productions.
Wandel made a quick visit to the
dressing room, where it was confirmed that James and her band would not
go on without the money up front.
Back upstairs, he asked the woman in
charge if she thought the theater had $5,000 on hand from ticket and
"I don't know," she said. "A lot of the
tickets were sold in advance."
She was also not inclined to hand it
over to Wandel without permission from the Contemporary owners.
Wandel recalled, "I said, 'I'll sign a
note for $5,000 and give it to you.' Which is what happened. I literally
wrote out an IOU."
They began to gather cash from the
night's food, drink and ticket sales. When they reached $5,000 — without
much to spare — Wandel stuffed it into a paper bag and went back
Inside the dressing room, James was in
full recline on a couch. The band sat on chairs. Wandel handed her the
bag. "Five thousand dollars," he said.
James laughed and handed it to one of
the band. "Count it," she said.
The show was already more than an hour
late. Wandel reminded the singer that she had always been treated fairly
by Contemporary in the past.
James said, "You are a nice white boy. I
have been cheated and stiffed as a black artist so many times for so
many years, I get paid up front. We will count the money."
They separated the bills in piles by
denomination. It was $5,000.
"Let's play," James said.
"And she was great," Wandel recalled
this week. He handed over a framed faded news clipping, a review, from
the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Wandel still keeps it on his desk.
"Etta James In Top Form After Getting
Late Start," the headline read.
She sang well, too.
Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or