Remembering Etta James (1938 - 2012)

Posted by Billyjam, January 21, 2012 08:18am | Post a Comment
Wow. What a sad week it has been for blues, R&B, and funk fans with the passing of Jimmy Castor, Johnny Otis, and then yesterday morning (Jan. 20th) more sad news arrived with word that Etta James had died in Riverside, California following complications from leukemia, which she had been undergoing treatment for for some years. She was 73 years of age but was just about to celebrate her 74th birthday next week. 

Born in LA and raised in the Fillmore District of San Francisco, Etta James (who won four Grammys in her lifetime) was loved by music fans worldwide and was inducted into both the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her music could be filed under blues, R&B, rock and roll, and even jazz sometimes (her album Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday won her a jazz Grammy). Even though James is best known for her soothing soulful rendition of "At Last," I personally always thought of the singer, who I saw in concert many times and was always blown away by her performances, as a gritty soulful blues singer since she always brought so much raw emotion and passion to her music. As anyone who has ever seen James in concert will attest, she brought sexy (or "raunchy" as some said) to her stage act in which she always gave it her all.


James was discovered by Johnny Otis, who in a tragic twist of coincidence passed just 3 days earlier this week, back when she was just a teen and recorded her first record when she was only 15. That record was “Roll With Me Henry,” which -- because of its sexual innuendo -- had its title changed to “The Wallflower" and as such became a 1954 hit on Billboard's Rhythm-and-Blues chart. A year later, a more whitewashed, toned-down version of the song retitled "Dance with me Henry" by white singer Georgia Gibbs became a mainstream number one Billboard pop charts hit. Understandably, that bummed out the black singer who had created the song.

That incident wasn't the only time James would feel slighted or unfairly overlooked in her long tumultuous career. A more recent and well-documented major disappointment for the singer was three years ago when Beyoncé was invited to the inaugural ball for President Obama in Washington DC to sing her hit "At Last." Etta was not. Note that Ms Knowles had recorded a version of the song for her part in the film Cadillac Records (the film about James' label Chess Records) in which she played the Etta James character and which James approved of upon its release (see inset picture here of the two singers at a screening of the film). However, I am sure in retrospect that Obama or whomever booked the inaugural ball would love to go back in time and book both Beyonce and James for a duet of the song.

Etta James "I'd Rather Go Blind"

Etta James, whose earliest hits include "Good Rockin’ Daddy," enjoyed a string of hits for Chess Records including "Trust in Me," “All I Could Do Was Cry," and of course "At Last," but these records only scratch the surface of Etta James' prolific output. As a trip down the LP and CD isles of Amoeba Music (or at the Amoeba online store) will quickly prove James released many albums over the years. These include Seven Year Itch, (Island), Who's Blue? (Kent), Losers Weepers (Kent), and Tell Mama: The Complete Muscle Shoals Sessions on Chess which includes her big hit "Tell Mama."  If you don't have any Etta in your collection already, a good place to start is with the Etta James Definitive Collection on Hip-O Records. or Genuine Article: The Best of Etta James, or the Etta James Platinum Series on D3 Entertainment.  And a good book to read on Etta James' life is Rage to Survive - her autobiography co-written with David Ritz that was published in 1995 and details the highs and lows (from hit singles to drug addictions) of her intense five-decade long career. Rest in peace Ms James. Your music will keep you alive forever!


Relevant Tags

Etta James (10), Black History Month (134), Rip (31), Jimmy Castor (2), Johnny Otis (3), Blues Hall Of Fame (1), Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame (5), Beyonce (33)