Singer Jade Chavis Watt portrays the late Etta James in a musical spotlight at Camelot Theatre. - Photo by Jamie Lusch

'Spotlight on Etta James' at Camelot

Etta James' story is one of rags to riches, from meager beginnings in a foster home to fame. Born in 1938 in Watts, Calif., James was a local, gospel phenomenon by age 5. At 14, she formed a female, doo-wop group, the Creolettes, in San Francisco. The girls garnered the attention of Johnny Otis — a 20th-century singer and record producer known as the Godfather of Rhythm and Blues — who signed them with Modern Records and changed the group's name to the Peaches.

James eventually went out on her own, successfully recording everything from jazz standards to R&B, blues and funk until the '80s when she became a jazz icon. She died this year — just five days before her 74th birthday — in Riverside, Calif.

With music arrangements by Michael Vannice and script by Charles Cherry, vocalist Jade Chavis Watt portrays James in Camelot Theatre's "Spotlight on Etta James."

"I knew of Etta James, of course, more in her later years," Watt says. "I even saw her perform live in the late '80s. When I started really reviewing her career, I realized how much I knew about her music. She was just so versatile."

"Spotlight on Etta James" features 24 songs that span the performer's remarkable life. Look for such songs as "Baby What You Want Me to Do," "The Blues is My Business," "Cry Me a River," "The Man I Love," "Something's Got a Hold on Me" and the singer's signature tune, "At Last," which won a 1999 Grammy Award.

James won a total of six Grammies. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001; she received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.

"Spotlight on Etta James" previews at 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 10, opens Friday, Jan. 11, and runs through Sunday, Jan. 20, at Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Ave., Talent. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, at 2 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets cost $18 for the Jan. 10 preview, $22 for all other shows, and are available at www.camelottheatre.org or by calling 541-535-5250.

Watt, who is rather versatile herself, will be joined by Brian Fraser, who narrates James' story. Musical accompaniment includes Vannice on keys, guitarist Brent Norton, saxophone players Randy Magallanes and Daryl Fjeldheim, bassist Jay Jorgensen and drummer Steve Sutfin. Presila Quinby directs.

Watt also grew up in Southern California. Though she played clarinet in her high-school band, she didn't start singing until her mid-20s, after a stint in the Marine Corps.

"I had always gone to church but after I got out of the Marines, faith became a part of me. It has been transformative," Watt says. "I started singing in church. My pastor heard me and asked me to sing onstage with the worship team."

When Watt and her husband, who is a firefighter and paramedic in Medford, first moved to Southern Oregon with their two small children, they joined Ashland Christian Fellowship. Watt is director of children's ministry at the church.

"I still struggle with my self-confidence when I sing," Watt says. "It is so personal; it bares your soul. It is hard to lie when you sing."

Watt collaborated with Cherry and Vannice to choose the songs for the show.

"Learning the repertoire has stretched me as a singer," she says. "I had listened to blues before, but I never sang it."

Watt says she got the last word on what she would sing. Cherry then wrote the script around those songs.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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