Monday, January 30, 2012

The Magnificent and Indefatigable Etta James, 1938-2012

Etta James, 1938-2012

via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Etta James in the studio in Chicago with the Chess Records founder Phil Chess, left, and the producer Ralph Bass in 1960

“A lot of people think the blues is depressing,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1992, “but that’s not the blues I’m singing. When I’m singing blues, I’m singing life. People that can’t stand to listen to the blues, they’ve got to be phonies.”

--Etta James


This woman was the absolute greatest blues singer of the past half century and one of the most profound, mesmerizing and enduring artists in U.S. history. It's hard to know where to properly begin with such an iconic and legendary figure whose work is as inspiring, influential, and significant to any true understanding and appreciation of 20th century popular song as Etta James. A pure and towering musical force of nature, Ms. James's extraordinary and endlessly expressive voice, profound depth of feeling and emotion, and an enormous musical and vocal range encompassed every single major creative tradition in African American culture from blues and Gospel to R & B, Rock and Roll, and Jazz. As one of the immortal titans of our music and songcraft Etta, like so many other legendary black female GIANTS who happened to be Ms. James's contemporaries and elders (Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Dinah Washington Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples, Clara Ward, Mahalia Jackson, Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey, et al ) completely revolutionized the genre of vernacular and popular song and made it into one of the greatest, inspiring, and most beloved artforms of our epoch.

So thank you Ms. Etta James for sending any and everyone who was fortunate enough to hear your incredibly moving and arresting voice into sheer ectasy. Likle so many other couples throughout the globe my wife and I was blessed to have your ever enduring classic song "At Last" grace our wedding. And while Beyonce did an adequate job covering what was indisputably your song at the inauguration of President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama in 2009, EVERYBODY with ears to hear in the world KNOWS that your eternally captivating version of that song could never possibly be approached let alone duplicated by ANYONE on this planet. Rest in Peace sister. You changed the world with your voice and spirit and we who hyave been privileged to hear and embrace it will always be eternally grateful that you came along to show us what great art and great singing was REALLY all about. The following outpouring of words, sounds, and video is a humble tribute to that beautiful, very powerful, and haunting legacy that you've left us and will never be eclipsed. You were a national treasure Etta. Thank You...


Etta James Dies at 73; Voice Behind ‘At Last 

January 20, 2012
New York Times

Etta James, whose powerful, versatile and emotionally direct voice could enliven the raunchiest blues as well as the subtlest love songs, most indelibly in her signature hit, “At Last,” died on Friday morning in Riverside, Calif. She was 73.

Her manager, Lupe De Leon, said that the cause was complications of leukemia. Ms. James, who died at Riverside Community Hospital, had been undergoing treatment for some time for a number of conditions, including leukemia and dementia. She also lived in Riverside.

Ms. James was not easy to pigeonhole. She is most often referred to as a rhythm and blues singer, and that is how she made her name in the 1950s with records like “Good Rockin’ Daddy.” She is in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.

She was also comfortable, and convincing, singing pop standards, as she did in 1961 with “At Last,” which was written in 1941 and originally recorded by Glenn Miller’s orchestra. And among her four Grammy Awards (including a lifetime-achievement honor in 2003) was one for best jazz vocal performance, which she won in 1995 for the album “Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday.”

Regardless of how she was categorized, she was admired. Expressing a common sentiment, Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote in 1990 that she had “one of the great voices in American popular music, with a huge range, a multiplicity of tones and vast reserves of volume.”

For all her accomplishments, Ms. James had an up-and-down career, partly because of changing audience tastes but largely because of drug problems. She developed a heroin habit in the 1960s; after she overcame it in the 1970s, she began using cocaine. She candidly described her struggles with addiction and her many trips to rehab in her autobiography, “Rage to Survive,” written with David Ritz (1995).

Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles on Jan. 25, 1938. Her mother, Dorothy Hawkins, was 14 at the time; her father was long gone, and Ms. James never knew for sure who he was, although she recalled her mother telling her that he was the celebrated pool player Rudolf Wanderone, better known as Minnesota Fats. She was reared by foster parents and moved to San Francisco with her mother when she was 12.

She began singing at the St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles at 5 and turned to secular music as a teenager, forming a vocal group with two friends. She was 15 when she made her first record, “Roll With Me Henry,” which set her own lyrics to the tune of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ recent hit “Work With Me Annie.” When some disc jockeys complained that the title was too suggestive, it was changed to “The Wallflower,” although the record itself was not.

“The Wallflower” rose to No. 2 on the rhythm-and-blues charts in 1954. As was often the case in those days with records by black performers, a toned-down version was soon recorded by a white singer and found a wider audience: Georgia Gibbs’s version, with the title and lyric changed to “Dance With Me, Henry,” was a No. 1 pop hit in 1955. (Its success was not entirely bad news for Ms. James. She shared the songwriting royalties with Mr. Ballard and the bandleader and talent scout Johnny Otis, who had arranged for her recording session. Mr. Otis died on Tuesday.)

In 1960 Ms. James was signed by Chess Records, the Chicago label that was home to Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and other leading lights of black music. She quickly had a string of hits, including “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “Trust in Me” and “At Last,” which established her as Chess’s first major female star.

She remained with Chess well into the 1970s, reappearing on the charts after a long absence in 1967 with the funky and high-spirited “Tell Mama.” In the late ’70s and early ’80s she was an opening act for the Rolling Stones.

After decades of touring, recording for various labels and drifting in and out of the public eye, Ms. James found herself in the news in 2009 after Beyoncé Knowles recorded a version of “At Last” closely modeled on hers. (Ms. Knowles played Ms. James in the 2008 movie “Cadillac Records,” a fictionalized account of the rise and fall of Chess.) Ms. Knowles also performed “At Last” at an inaugural ball for President Obama in Washington.

When the movie was released, Ms. James had kind words for Ms. Knowles’s portrayal. But in February 2009, referring specifically to the Washington performance, she told an audience, “I can’t stand Beyoncé,” and threatened to “whip” the younger singer for doing “At Last.” She later said she had been joking, but she did add that she wished she had been invited to sing the song herself for the new president.

Ms. James’s survivors include her husband of 42 years, Artis Mills; two sons, Donto and Sametto James; and four grandchildren.

Though her life had its share of troubles to the end — her husband and sons were locked in a long-running battle over control of her estate, which was resolved in her husband’s favor only weeks before her death — Ms. James said she wanted her music to transcend unhappiness rather than reflect it.

“A lot of people think the blues is depressing,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1992, “but that’s not the blues I’m singing. When I’m singing blues, I’m singing life. People that can’t stand to listen to the blues, they’ve got to be phonies.”

Selected Videos of Etta James