Sunday, January 22, 2012

Etta James: Blues Reflect Life (1938-2012)

Etta James: Blues reflect life

Published 09:41 p.m., Friday, January 20, 2012

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 Friday morning in Riverside, Calif. She was 73.

Her manager, Lupe De Leon, said that the cause was complications of leukemia. 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.

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, 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."

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 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, the name was changed to "The Wallflower," although the record itself was not.

"The Wallflower" rose to No. 2 on the R&B 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' 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 James. She shared the songwriting royalties with Ballard and the bandleader and talent scout Johnny Otis, who had arranged for her recording session. (Otis died on Tuesday.)

In 1960 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' first major female star.

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 — 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."

Read more:

Reflections on Etta James: “Oh, Sometimes I Get a Good Feeling--At Last"

by Valerie Fraling

From an Etta James interview:
“…I used to go to Baltimore at least two or three times a year, at the Royal Theatre. Remember that theater? Now that was a bum theater.

Everybody that ever went there would be terrified to go. 'Where are you working?' 'Oh, I'm working at the Royal Theatre in Baltimore. And then I'd go to the Howard Theatre in Washington.' There was one more -- we called them the funky three.

“…They were the funkiest theaters because people would come in there with pickles, with olives, with boiled eggs and get ready to throw all kinds of stuff at you. And the thing is, they used to throw the stuff. It wasn't heartbreaking to people like me or Sam Cooke. It was the older entertainers that didn't understand. “Why are they going to be throwing popcorn at me?’… ”

Friends: How ironic that two big names in music history-- Johnny Otis and Etta James--died this week. Both had worked together and had an influence on rock and roll.

The first time I heard Etta James sing “Something’s Got a Hold On Me” I was hooked. Years later broadcast giant Larry Dean introduced me to this tall blonde buxom woman built like a “brick house” with the raspy voice. Later when she performed at Artscape I was shocked to see her on a scooter in poor health but still belting out the Etta classics. The last time I saw her was at the Meyerhoff she arrived almost two hours late, walked on the stage, never apologized and performed nonstop singing jazz, blues and R&B. You see, Etta, Baltimore came along way from the Royal Theater.

“At Last” is what put her on the charts for most people but she was a star long before that; belting out classic after classic like her “Wait, Wait, Stop the Wedding” you could just feel the pain she was experiencing. Then she would sing "I'd Rather Go Blind” or tell us to “Tell Mama All about It.” I could go on and on.

Well. she got upset with the President because Beyonce’s version of “At Last” was used at the Obama inauguration. I couldn’t get mad at her because she didn’t realize that like “Joe Turner her train had come and gone.” And I prayed that she would realize that because of her Beyonce could sing that song and it will always be Etta’s song although in 1942 it belonged to someone else.

Whenever I hear “At Last” I close my eyes and groove to the soulful melody. It was surprising that in an interview that Etta gave to a reporter years ago she said she felt that Baltimore was a raunchy city and treated entertainers poorly.

But Etta, for the record, we love you and “At Last” may you find peace. I know this interview will bring back memories.


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