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 music."
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 1990s.
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 jokes.
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 concession sales.
"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 downstairs.
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 email@example.com.