Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Etta James R.I.P. (January 25th 1938 - January 20th 2012)

Etta James R.I.P. January 25th 1938 ~ January 20th 2012
Etta James R.I.P. January 25th 1938 ~ January 20th 2012

Etta James, the undisputed Queen of female blues singers, lost her battle with Leukaemia on 20th January, just a few days before what would have been her 74th birthday. The word “legend” is bandied about far too often in the music world; but it was justified for sure when speaking about Etta – affectionately knows as Miss Peaches.

Superstar Beyonce among the first stars to pay public tribute to the “fearless” Etta. "This is a huge loss. Etta James was one of the greatest vocalists of our time. I am so fortunate to have met such a queen. Her musical contributions will last a lifetime. Playing Etta James taught me so much about myself, and singing her music inspired me to be a stronger artist. “When she effortlessly opened her mouth, you could hear her pain and triumph. Her deeply emotional way of delivering a song told her story with no filter. She was fearless, and had guts. She will be missed."

An influence to many modern day soul stars, including Beyonce who played Etta in the movie Cadillac Records, Etta released her final album “The Dreamer” in November last year, to huge critical acclaim. She overcame a heroin addiction to win six Grammys, and global adoration from fans and her peers.

Adele said that it was buying an Etta James CD when she was 13, which made her want to sing. She names Etta and Aretha as her two favourite ever singers. "If you were to look up the word singer in the dictionary, you'd see their names."

"Everything she sings - you believe her, even if she never wrote a word of it herself. I saw her live in New York not so long ago: Extraordinary."

Legendary Atlantic records producer Jerry Wexler once called her "the greatest of all modern blues singers."

Nile Rodgers added: "When I was a kid, I remember walking all the way to Flash Record Shop in LA to buy a 45rpm single by Etta James. RIP."

Black Eyed Peas frontman wrote on Twitter: "Showing respect appreciation and love for all the wonderful music and joy Etta James brought to the world."

Kelly Rowland said: "Classic. One of a kind. Pure soul. Thank you for gracing us with your incredible talent and presence."

Rihanna tweeted: 'Dear Etta may you rest in peace.'

Bryan Adams wrote on Twitter "Etta James... one of the best voices of all time... RIP".

And there were also tributes from the world of movies and television.

Jessica Alba: 'RIP Etta James u r a legend and 1 of my all time favs -thank you for giving us all the gift of song -what a voice!'

Kirstie Alley: 'At last my love has come lonely days are over….RIP Etta James.

She died from complications from leukaemia - with her husband, Artis Mills, and her sons Donto and Sametto by her side.

She was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2010, and also suffered from dementia and hepatitis C. James died at a hospital in Riverside, California. She would have turned 74 the following Wednesday.

Etta James, heart-wrenching voice graced hits including "The Wallflower," "Something's Got a Hold on Me," “I’d Rather Go Blind” and the incomparable and much covered (and abused!) classic on TV talent shows "At Last." Her recording of Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want To make Love To You,” has never been bettered. It gave Etta her biggest UK hit, when it charted at number five in 1996, after it was used on a TV ad’ for Diet Coke.

She was managed by her long-time friend, Lupe De Leon. “This is a tremendous loss for the family, her friends and fans around the world," De Leon said. "She was a true original who could sing it all - her music defied category. I worked with Etta for over 30 years. She was my friend and I will miss her always."

She had a colourful life. Born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938 in Los Angeles to a 14- year-old mother and unknown father, although she always believed her father was the famous pool and Billiards player Minnesota Fats. Her mother took little responsibility, and Etta was raised by a series of people.

Her “booming” voice was spotted early on in church, and in 1950 her mother took her to San Francisco, where as a 14-year-old she eventually started the girl group The Creolettes. Singer Johnny Otis – who sadly died the very same week as Etta – and who was known for "Willie and the Hand Jive," discovered her. She also sang in a group called The Peaches, hence her nickname.

She signed to Chess Records and crossed over into the pop market. Among her recordings were "Stormy Weather," the Lena Horne classic originally from 1933; "A Sunday Kind of Love," from 1946; and, "At Last," a 1941 number that was a Glenn Miller hit.

She entered rehab in the 1970s, but re-established herself with live performances and an album produced by Jerry Wexler. After another stay in rehab at the Betty Ford Clinic - she made a comeback album, "Seven Year Itch," in 1988.

James won six Grammy awards - In 2003, she was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award - and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She is also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame. “I want to thank God for allowing me to come such a long way,” she said at the after being inducted by KD Lang in 1993. “I never thought about a hall of fame...I never thought about anything like that.”

Having conquered drug addiction in 1988, she began a struggle with her weight – in 2002, weighing more than 400lb, and needed a scooter to get around. She had gastric bypass surgery and lost 200lb, which saw her return to performing. James maintained a steady touring schedule, but sometimes sat down on stage, due to bad knees and her weight battles.

"Most of the songs I sing, they have that blue feeling to it. They have that sorry feeling. And I don't know what I'm sorry about," she told CNN in 2002. "I don't!" She was quoted as saying Leonard Chess, the co-owner of her label Chess records, knew she was “a junkie” and sent her off to rehab.

She was the original “bad girl” long before most of today’s tabloid hell raisers were born. With a reputation for being difficult, which her manager and friend Leon confirmed to CNN before her death. "Etta James is unmanageable, and I'm the closest thing she's ever had to a manager.”

"The bad girls had the look that I liked," she wrote in her 1995 autobiography, Rage to Survive. "I wanted to be rare, I wanted to be noticed, I wanted to be exotic as a Cotton Club chorus girl, and I wanted to be obvious as the most flamboyant hooker on the street. I just wanted to be."

“I was a street kid, living in rooming houses,” she said in 1993. “My mother was just 14 years older than me and she had a hard life, too. I was always running away from home, getting in trouble. What motivated me was fear and hard knocks.”

For many she lived in Los Angeles, but moved to Inland Southern California to escape the problems of street violence. “I was tired of having no place to park my cars,” she told The Press-Enterprise in 1993. “Having burglar alarms going off all night long, my husband running outside with a gun.”

“My grandmother had a house in Lake Elsinore and in San Bernardino that we used to go to,” said James. “And I would come and spend the summer in one of those houses. Lake Elsinore had the magic Indian mud, and the old people with aches and pains would put the mud on them. Well, my grandmother would always say, ‘I would sure love to live in Riverside.’ And that stuck in my mind. I remember coming down here on a Sunday and looking at the palm trees. And I said to myself, ‘This is a pretty place.’ And it’s still a lot like that. It’s got a country atmosphere, and you know everyone at the local stores.” She ended her life in the place she loved.

She expressed dismay that her dipping in and out of musical styles, meant she did not have her own identity as a recording artist. “They never knew where to place my records, where to put the platter down,” James told The Press-Enterprise. “Twenty years ago I was considered rhythm and blues. Thirty five years ago, I was considered rock ‘n’ roll. (Atlantic producer) Jerry Wexler said my problem was that ‘I was neither fish nor fowl.’ I always basically felt I was rock ’n’ roll. But my music had blues and gospel and soul in it because they all came from the same root.”

In her final high-profile appearance, a 71-year-old James sang her signature “At Last” on American TV’s peak time reality show “Dancing with the Stars” in 2009.

"There's a lot going on Etta James' voice," Bonnie Raitt told Rolling Stone in 2008. "A lot of pain, a lot of life, most of all, a lot of strength. She can be so raucous and down one song, and then break your heart with her subtlety and finesse the next. As raw as Etta is, there's a great intelligence and wisdom in her singing."

“She is one of the real national treasures,” Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh said last year. He recorded an album with James 20 years ago.

In the 1970s, James was forced to tour the club circuit to scrape a living. The Rolling Stones took her on tour in 1978. Her drug habit returned in the 1980s, until her Betty Ford Clinic stay.

In 1997, James spoke with Rolling Stone magazine about her life. "Life's been rough," she said. "But life's been good. If I had to go back and do it all over again, I would live it the exact same way."

Earlier this year, news reports revealed that the singer's estate was being contested in a legal struggle between her husband, Artis Mills, and sons Donto and Sametto, who both played in her band.

Etta James. RIP. January 25, 1938 – January 20, 2012

FOOTNOTE: I saw and photographed Etta James at the Ryman Auditorium circa 2008. The UK’s James Hunter was opening for that gig and her US tour. She was in fine voice, and full of spirit. It was a delight to be in the same “room” as this living legend.

A virus wiped the entire ‘C’ Drive on my PC, and I was devastated to lose all those pictures of Etta (plus many more treasured shots, including Aretha in Milwaukee - inc dressing room shots - and Joss Stone in Denmark and Leeds).

When I worked with Little Richard and Chuck Berry in 1995 as official photographer, I was in the dressing room with Little Richard at the NEC, Birmingham, and the two promoters who staged the arena concerts. (Fats Domino was also on the bill, but ill that night and not on the show.) I recall Little Richard telling the promoters that he had two “very dear friends” who had asked him if he could put in a word for them, for some work in the UK. My jaw hit the floor when he named them as “Etta James and Johnnie Guitar Watson.” The promoters told him neither were a draw at that time!

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