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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Etta James 1938 - 2012

She was considered by many to be among the greatest rhythm and blues singers of all time. Her career was marked by dramatic highs and lows, with the latter largely the result of the heroin addiction that consumed years of her life. First achieving success as a teenager in 1954 with the bawdy song "The Wallflower (Dance with Me Henry)", Etta James went on to record a string of hits with Chess Records in the 1960s before disappearing from public view due to her drug problem.

She reemerged in the 1970s and recorded sporadically from then on, developing her style into a unique blend of straightforward blues, R&B and rock. The influence of gospel was also evident in her soulful delivery, and she was particularly noted for her ability to modulate with ease between soft, tender crooning and traditional blues shouting. Her work has been described as a bridge between blues and rock 'n' roll, and she has influenced such performers as The Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin.

Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938 in Los Angeles--her mother Dorothy was only 14 years old at the time. The identity of her father is uncertain, although she occasionally speculated that he might have been the billiards legend Minnesota Fats. After her mother proved unable to care for her, James was raised by her landlady, Lula Rogers, in the South Central section of L.A. As was the case with many rhythm-and-blues performers, in her youth James sang gospel hymns in her local church choir. James was exceptional, however, performing on gospel radio broadcasts while only five years of age.

In the early 1950s, a teenage Jamesetta Hawkins--by then a self-described juvenile delinquent--joined two other girls to form a singing group called the Creolettes. In 1954 they came to the attention of influential R&B bandleader Johnny Otis, who took them on tour with him, changing the group's name to the Peaches and its lead singer's name to Etta James. Otis got them signed to Modern Records, and before the year was out they had recorded their first single. Written by James and Otis, with James on lead vocals, the song was originally entitled "Roll with Me, Henry". At the request of Modern Records, the title was toned down to "The Wallflower (Dance with Me Henry" despite the fact that the words in the original title remained in the song. The record was a success, reaching number two on the R&B chart.

James spent time in the late 1950s as an opening act at concerts and as a backup singer. She toured with Little Richard, and backup credits from this period include records by the likes of Marvin Gaye and Chuck Berry. She also met one of her idols, Billie Holiday, who prophetically warned her of the potentially self-destructive side of being an entertainer. "Maybe she saw the wildness in my eyes, maybe she saw all the trouble waiting for me," James speculated in a 1995 Jet magazine interview.

At the end of the 1950s, James struck out on her own, moving to Chicago and signing a contract with the blues record label Chess. This period saw the artistic high point of James' output. Between 1960 and 1963 she accumulated 10 charted hits for Chess Records, including her iconic, bluesy rendition of "At Last", which reached number two on the R&B chart in 1961. Several of James' Chess singles from this period were nominated for Grammys, including "All I Could Do Was Cry" in 1960 and "Fool That I Am" in 1961.

Despite her impressive streak, however, James was unable to cross over from the R&B to the pop charts. This was ironic, given the fact that many mainstream vocalists, such as Diana Ross, had adapted elements of her style. Also ironic was that James' addiction to heroin began in 1959, just at the time her career was starting to take off at Chess Records. Her habit worsened through the 1960s, and her initial attempts to cure herself through methadone treatment only made matters worse. In the early 1970s, she sought rehabilitation, checking into a hospital. There she made great strides toward recovery, and finally returned to her music in 1973.

James 1970s comeback faltered slightly with the demise of Chess Records due to bankruptcy. One highpoint, however, included an invitation to appear as an opening act for The Rolling Stones on their 1978 American tour. She had been asked to appear by Stones guitarist Keith Richards, a devoted admirer.

She was artistically silent for much of the 1980s, but the crucial contribution she made to rock 'n' roll music, particularly in its earliest days, was recognized in 1993 with an induction to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. James published her autobiography, Rage to Survive, two years later, not long after finally winning her first Grammy, for the album Mystery Lady: The Songs of Billie Holiday. In recent years, her experiences at Chess were dramatized in the 2008 movie Cadillac Records, in which she was portrayed to great effect by contemporary R&B belter Beyonce Knowles.

Etta James lived out the final years of her life in Riverside, California with her husband Artis Mills. After battling leukemia, she died on Friday at a Riverside hospital in the arms of her 43-year-old son Donto. She was 73.

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