Most of you know that the great Soul/Blues singer Etta James died last week. Today, what would have been her 74th birthday, gives us the opportunity to remember and pay tribute to one of the great voices of our time. As a singer, I can’t understate how much of an influence she’s had on me and countless others. She had the rare talent of being able to project attitude and ferocity at one moment and then turn around and sing with tenderness and vulnerability without missing a beat. Her talent was incomparable and she left us too soon.
Etta was born in Los Angeles under the name Jamesetta Hawkins on this day in 1938. Her mother, Dorothy Hawkins, who was only fourteen at the time. She never knew her father but suspected that he might be the legendary pool player Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone, who she met briefly in 1987. Her mother, sadly, was mostly absent during her early childhood, and she was raised by various caregivers, many of whom abused her.
She began voice training at the age of five and quickly became a popular singer at her church. In 1950, her mother took her to San Francisco where she was exposed to the early doo wop sound. She formed her first group, The Creolettes, a couple of years later. The group was taken under the wing of R&B singer Johnny Otis (who, strangely, also died last week, three days before Etta) who convinced them to change their name to The Peaches. Otis got them signed to Modern Records and gave Jamesetta the stage name that she would carry for the rest of her life. Her first release as Etta James, “Dance With Me, Henry,” was released in early 1955. The song reached number one on the Hot Rhythm & Blues Tracks charts and earned Etta and The Peaches an opening slot on Little Richard’s national tour.
Eventually, James left The Peaches, and when her contract with Modern was up in 1960 she signed with the legendary Chess Records. This signing ushered in the most prolific era of her career. Her debut album “At Last” was released later that year and was notable for its inclusion of a variety of musical styles: jazz standards, blues tunes, doo-wop and R&B. It not only contained the classic single “At Last” but “Sunday Kind of Love” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” songs that would become staples of her live set for the next forty plus years.
James’ run of hits continued throughout the 60s with such classics as “Tell Mama,” “I’d Rather Go Blind,” “Something’s Got A Hold Of Me” and her cover of Otis Redding’s “Security.” The hits dried up in the 70s, and she left Chess in 1978. For the next ten years, she didn’t record, and she struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. She continued to perform, however, and experienced a revival in the mid 90s after her induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. Her songs began to be featured in commercials, exposing her music to a younger generation. In 2001 she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. In 2003 she received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2004 Rolling Stone ranked her number 64 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. She released fifteen critically acclaimed albums between 1989 and 2011 and continued to blow away audiences worldwide with her live performances.
Countless female performers have cited James as a major influence, including Janis Joplin, Diana Ross and Bonnie Raitt, and her influence continues to be heard in modern-day performers like Amy Winehouse, Adele and Joss Stone. She may be gone, but her music will live on forever. Goodbye Etta. The world of music lost a good dose of soul with your passing.
We have three events coming up next month that pay tribute to Etta, and we encourage you all to go and remember one of the greatest voices of the 20th Century.
Tuesday, February 14 – Kaye Bohler Valentine’s Day Show San Jose, California “On January 20th, I lost the greatest teacher of my life: Etta James. There aren’t enough words for me to express the gratitude I feel toward this great singer. Her big voice, huge ears and her edgy authentic style left me awestruck from the moment I first heard her sing “Sunday Kind of Love” twenty-five years ago. If it hadn’t been for Etta, I would never have found the blues and become the singer I am today. Many, many tears along with the deepest love and gratitude ever go out to Etta in heaven! I’ve decided to dedicate a Valentine’s Day Show to honor the music of the great Etta James. It seems only fitting, given the deep love I feel for this woman as an artist. I know no better way to honor her then to help make her music live on and on!” – Kaye Bohler
Saturday, February 25 – Peaches and Queen: Etta James and Dinah Washington Albuquerque, New Mexico Albuquerque’s jazz contessa Patti Littlefield pays tribute to the music of Etta James and Dinah Washington with Jam Ahrend on piano, Jon Gagan on bass and Cal Haines on drums. Patti will also be presenting this show in Santa Fe the following night, Sunday, February 26 at the Santa Fe Center for Spiritual Living. You can pick up tickets for that show right over here.