Etta James' Son Says Addiction Ruled Her Life

By McCarton Ackerman 11/15/12

The son of the legendary R&B singer grew up "broke" because of his mom's addictions.

The R&B icon at a concert in 2006. Photo via

Legendary singer Etta James' son Donto, now 44, has spoken about his mother's long battle with addiction before passing away last January at age 73. "Addiction was a part of her life. But the addiction is what made her," he says of the R&B icon, who once was forced to wear a diaper that said "I'm a brat" due to her unruly behavior in a drug rehab. Despite having a famous mother who recorded five major hits during the 1950's, his upbringing was far from privileged. James' addictions prevented her from working, her savings dried up quickly and Donto lived with his grandmother while she bounced in and out of rehab. “People tended to think that because my mother was Etta James, I must have had a great life with caviar and steaks every night, but it wasn’t like that,” he recalls. “We were poor and broke. We were lucky to get Spam sandwiches and Frosted Flakes for dessert...but we always had a roof over our heads." The singer eventually kicked her addiction to heroin and cocaine in the early 80's and revived her career; however, she continued to struggle with an addiction to overeating and subsequent weight issues. "For me, food is the killer," the singer wrote in her 1995 memoir. But despite his turbulent upbringing, "There was a lot of laughter and good times," Donto recalls. "I miss the conversations we had and I miss her attitude and the crazy things she would do. I miss playing [music] with her."

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.