I saw Etta James a few years back. She played a show with B.B. King, Elvin Bishop, and J. Geils in Nashville. Man, that lady had some pipes! When she started singing At Last, the crowd went crazy. It was a real treat for me and surprising how she absolutely stole the stage from these music legends.
Etta James lost her long battle with Leukemia on Friday. (Jan 20, 2012)
Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins, in Los Angeles, Calif., January 25, 1938, her mother was 14 and her father was never known. James speculated that her father was the pool player, Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone. James met him briefly in 1987. It’s noted that Fats never validated nor denied the claim.
Etta’s mother was a bit of a ramblin’ gal and young Jamesetta was raised mostly by a string of caregivers. The bulk of her childhood with “Sarge” and “Mama Lu.”
James received her first professional vocal training at the age of five from James Earle Hines, musical director of the Echoes of Eden choir, at the St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Even then her talent showed promise.
In 1950 when Mama Lu died, her mother moved Etta to the Fillmore district in San Francisco. A couple of years later, James began listening to doo-wop and was inspired to form a girl croup — The Creolettes. The later changed the name to The Peaches and in 1956, at eighteen years-old, her little girl group from San Francisco earned an opening spot on Little Richard‘s national tour.
In 1960, she signed with Chess Records and recorded for nearly twenty years. Her debut album, At Last!, was released in late 1960 and was noted for its varied choice in music from jazz to blue, doo-wop and R&B. The album also included James’ future classic, “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and “A Sunday Kind of Love“. In early 1961, James released what has become her signature song, “At Last“, which reached number two on the R&B chart and number 47 on the Billboard Top 100.
After she left Chess in 1978 James did not record for nearly a decade as she battled addictions and alcoholism. In 1988 she staged a comeback with moderate success.
James signed with Private Music Records in 1993 and recorded the Billie Holiday tribute album Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday. The album set a trend for James’ music to incorporate more jazz elements. The album won James her first Grammy Award for best jazz vocal performance. In 1995, she released the David Ritz-co authored autobiography, A Rage to Survive, and recorded the album Time After Time. Three years later she issued the Christmas album Etta James Christmas in 1998.
In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked her #62 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. James has performed at the top world jazz festivals in the world, such as the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1977, 1989, 1990 and 1993, performed nine times at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival, and the San Francisco Jazz Festival five times. She also performs often at free city outdoor summer arts festivals throughout the US.
In April 2009, the 71-year-old James made her final television appearance performing “At Last” during an appearance on Dancing with the Stars.
James was hospitalized in January 2010 to treat an infection caused by MRSA, a bacterium resistant to antibiotic treatment. During her hospitalization, her son Donto revealed that James had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2008, and attributed her previous comments about Beyoncé Knowles to “drug induced dementia”.
She was diagnosed with leukemia in early 2011. Etta James died on January 20, 2012, just five days before her 74th birthday, at Riverside Community Hospital, Riverside, California.
There is a void in the music world today. It’s shaped very much like Etta James.