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'Matriarch of the Blues' - Etta James RIP

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Initial post: Jan 20, 2012 5:56:49 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 21, 2012 9:03:07 AM PST
Mr. P says:
Legendary American Blues & Jazz singer Etta James (born Jamesetta Hawkins; January 25, 1938 - January 20, 2012) died today.

One of the most important pioneering vocalists in Rhythm n' Blues, Etta would later ecompassed the genres of Gospel, Soul, Rock and Funk into her discography.

Childhood Trauma...

Jamesetta Hawkins was born on January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles to Dorothy Hawkins, who was only 14 at the time. Her father has never been identified, but was rumored possibly to be the pool player, Rudolf "Minnesota Fats" Wanderone,. Etta met him briefly in 1987. Due to her mother being often absent carrying on relationships with various men, James lived with a series of caregivers, most notably "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. She became a popular singing attraction at the church.

Sarge tried to pressure the church into paying him money for her singing, but they refused. During drunken poker games at home, he would wake James up in the early hours of the morning and force her through beatings to sing for his friends. As she was a bed-wetter, and often soaked with her own urine on these occasions, the trauma of being forced to sing meant she had a life-long reluctance to sing on demand.

In 1950 Mama Lu died and James' real mother took her to the Fillmore district in San Francisco. Their relationship was always dysfunctional and her mother's neglect and abuse would be detrimental to Etta's self-esteem. This early life abandonement and trauma could be seen throughout Etta's life manifesting in her poor mental health and drug addiction.

Within a couple of years, James began listening to Doo-Wop and was inspired to form a girl group, called the Creolettes (due to the members' light skinned complexions). The 14-year-old girls met musician [the recently departed] Johnny Otis.

The Rhythm n' Blues years 1954-63 - Etta's Hey Day!

Otis took the group under his wing, helping them sign to Modern Records and changing their name from the Creolettes to the Peaches and gave the singer her stage name reversing Jamesetta into Etta James.

In 1954 Etta recorded 'Roll With Me, Henry' an "answer song" to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie". Etta got a writing credit but the obvious sexual meaning of the record was slightly censored by changing the title... the song was released in early 1955 as "Dance with Me, Henry".

February 1955 the song reached number 1 on the Hot Rhythm & Blues Tracks chart. Its success gave the group an opening spot on Little Richard's national tour. Etta had always wanted to do more ballads and Jazz standards in her set like her idol Dinah Washington. But Modern records were only content to keep releasing her uptempo songs. The record company publicists dubbed her as 'The Female Little Richard' due to their similar hard vocal style.

After leaving the Peaches, James had another R&B hit with "Good Rockin' Daddy", but struggled with follow-ups. When her contract with Modern came up in 1960, her friend and mentor Harvey Fuqua, founder of the doo-wop group, The Moonglows helped her to sign Chess Records.

James was put on the Chess' subsidiary Jazz label Argo (and later Cadet label) Her first hit singles were duets with Fuqua including "If I Can't Have You" and "Spoonful". Her first solo hit was the Doo-Wop styled Rhythm and Blues number, "All I Could Do Was Cry", which became a number 2 R&B hit. Leonard Chess had envisioned James as a classic ballad stylist who had potential to cross over to the pop charts and surrounded the singer with violins and other string instruments. The first string-laden ballad James recorded was "My Dearest Darling", which peaked in the top 5 of the R&B chart. James was also notable for singing background vocals on label mate Chuck Berry's classic "Back in the USA".

At Last! LP & Song...
Only 22 years old Etta released one of the most timeless and classic albums in Rhythm n' Blues history. At Last!, was released in late 1960 and was noted for its varied choice in genre styles from Jazz standards to Blues numbers to Doo-Wop.

At a time when most albums were still not much more than a collection of singles Etta took inspiration from her idol Dinah Washington albums and produced what is still one of the most imporatant albums in African American music.

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". An old Jazz standard which Etta updated reached number 2on the R&B chart and number 47 on the Billboard Hot 100. It has become the most remembered version of the song. [And has featured in many films and been played at many a wedding thru the years!!]

James followed that up with the single "Trust in Me". Later that same year, James released a second studio album, 'The Second Time Around.' The album took the same direction as her previous album, covering many Jazz and pop standards, and using strings on many of the songs spawning two classic hit singles, "Don't Cry Baby" and the ballad "Fool That I Am".

The Gospel flavoured "Something's Got a Hold on Me", which peaked at number four on the R&B chart and was also a top 40 pop hit was followed by further success with the incendary "Stop the Wedding", which reached number six on the R&B charts

In 1963, she had another major hit with "Pushover" and released the live album, Etta James Rocks the House, which was recorded at the New Era Club in Nashville, Tennessee. This live album still stands as one of the best live concert recording of the Rhythm n' Blues era!

The Decline [via a one single comeback] and Fall...

After a run of hits since the mid 50's, as with so many R&B artists of this era Etta's singles sales started to decline in the wake of the mid 60's Soul Music and 'British Invasion' era.

As Rhythm n' Blues morphed into Soul in 63/64 Etta singles sales progressively dropped. In 65/66 she didnt even record any albums.

Additionally, James was also having problems with relationships and an increasing dependence to drugs.

After a period of isolation, James returned to recording in 1967. Inspired by the recent reivention in Aretha Franklin's career. Etta felt she could do the same. She went to the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama releasing her comeback album "Tell Mama".

The album didnt register but the single"Tell Mama".
reached number 10 R&B and number 23 pop. The B-side was "I'd Rather Go Blind", which became a Blues classic in its own right and was recorded by many other artists.

Just as it seemed a return to popularity might appear, further success never materialized. While the album was no hit, it has since become a critics favorite. Anyone familiar with this unsung classic will understand that Etta should have been one of the biggest Soul singers of the 60's/70's.

Etta would never again reach the heyday of her mid 50's to early 60s success again. She continued to chart in the R&B Top 40 in the early 1970s with singles such as "Losers Weepers" (1970) and "I Found a Love" (1972). Though James continued to record for Chess, she was devastated by the death of Chess founder Leonard Chess in 1969. James ventured into rock and funk with the release of her self-titled album in 1973 with production from famed rock producer Gabriel Mekler, who had worked with Steppenwolf and Janis Joplin, [who had admired and copied James phrasing shamelessly!]. This earned her a US Grammy nomination, despite her continued drug problems, which she did not overcome until the mid-80s.

James encountered a string of legal problems during the early 1970s due to her heroin addiction. She was continuously in and out of rehabilitation centers.

In 1974 a judge sentenced her to a drug treatment program in lieu of serving time in prison. She was in the Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital for 17 months, at age 35.

This 'Etta James' album and a follow up album 1974's ' Come A Little Closer' earned critical acclaim. The 'Come A Little Closer' album has since become a highly regarded album by fans. [Reissued to further acclain in 1996.] This is due to Etta's ability to mix early 70's Funk and Soul with a definitive cover of Bessie Smith's St Louis Blues. It is alsio notable for being recorded while Etta was in Psychiatric Hospital for her addictions. The album also inlcudes a stunning song called 'Feeling Uneasy' a Bluesy Jazz ballad that was recorded while Etta was granted a day pass. So ravaged and sick from the effects og heroin withdrawal, Etta couldnt sing the lyrics. Instead she moans, wails and crys her way thru this haunting joint only able to sing the title at the end.

The Return [2 the Blues]...& a Rage 2 Survive!

A renewed public profile followed James' appearance at the opening ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. The live Late Show albums, released in 1986, featured [artist in his own right and Johnny's som] Shuggie Otis and Bluesman Eddie `Cleanhead' Vinson. etta would render another haunting song with a cover of Alice Cooper's 'Only Women Bleed'.

Though she continued to perform, little was heard of Etta James until 1987 when she was seen performing "Rock & Roll Music" with Chuck Berry on his "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll" documentary.

James participated in rap singer Def Jef for the song "Droppin' Rhymes on Drums", which mixed James' jazz vocals with hip-hop.

In 1993 James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

James signed with Private Music Records in 1993 and recorded a tribute to one of her idols from childhood...Billie Holiday. The Billie Holiday tribute album, 'Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday' would set a trend for James' to return to her Jazz roots. This was her first album to be highly acclaimed in over twenty years!The album won James her first [first!!!?] Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal performance in 1994.

In 1995, she released the David Ritz-co authored autobiography, A Rage to Survive. A searingly honest, engrossing and egoless accountof the singers deeply troubled life.

By the mid-1990s, James' earlier classic music was included in commercials including, most notably, "I Just Wanna Make Love to You". Due to exposure of the song in a UK commercial, the song reached the top ten of the UK charts in 1996. Continuing to record for Private Music, in 2000 she released the Blues standards album called 'Matriarch of the Blues' [a moniker that she had picked up on the road in recent years] , which had James returning to her R&B roots.

In 2001, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the latter for her contributions to the developments of both rock and roll music and rockabilly.

In 2003, she received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Her 2004 release, Blue Gardenia, returned James yet again to a Jazz style. 'Blues to the Bone' was given a Grammy Award in 2005 for Best Traditional Blues Album. James' final album for Private Music, Let's Roll, was released in 2005 and won James a Grammy for best contemporary Blues album.

In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked her #62 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time!

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 carried on touring but by 2010 had to cancel concert dates to her gradually failing health after it was revealed that she was suffering from dementia and leukemia. In November 2011, James released her final album, The Dreamer, which was critically acclaimed upon its release. James announced via her manager's statement that this would be her final album.

On 8th January 2012 her continuing relevance was affirmed when Avicii reached number 1 on Beatport with the song "Le7els" that samples her song "Something's Got a Hold on Me". A vocal sample of James' 1962 song, "Something's Got a Hold On Me," was also sampled by rapper Flo Rida in his 2011 single, "Good Feeling."

In 2010, she received treatment for a dependency on painkillers. James was hospitalized in January 2010 to treat an infection caused by MRSA. During her hospitalization, her son Donto revealed that James had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2008,

James was diagnosed with leukemia in early 2011. The illness became terminal and she died on January 20, 2012, just five days before her 74th birthday, at Riverside Community Hospital in Riverside, California.

Etta James will always be best remebered for her early Rhythm n Blues and Jazz recordings from the 50's early 60's. And of course for some she will be the definitive vocals on her signature song 'At Last' ....even if they do not remember her name.

But Etta was also without doubt one of the most important, most influential and pioneering females artists in modern music.

And as any fan knows, a dig deeper into her extensive back catalogue will show she recorded some of the finest R&B of all genres....and her discography is literally a journey into the last 50 years of Black American musical history.

"Whether purveying Doo-Wop, Chess Blues, Memphis strut, Gospel classics, Jazz standards, overblown studio productions, tributes to Billie Holiday, or guitar-heavy rock ... she has seldom delivered less than her full-bodied all." - Howard Mandel [Jazziz review]

And, then there's the voice....many have tried and failed to copy. The unique phrasing....that instantly recognisable sound. And her emotional truth leaves the listener in no doubt this woman lived what she sang.

Etta James is The Truth.
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Discussion in:  Jazz forum
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Initial post:  Jan 20, 2012
Latest post:  Jan 20, 2012

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