My entry into the world of Etta James was via the cracking tune ‘Tell Mama’ originally released in 1968. Those spiky brass stabs hit the spot every time. Etta had a raspingly soulful voice that I knew I just had to investigate further. Those investigations thankfully led me to discover her work on classics like ‘At Last’ ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ and ‘Something’s Got a Hold of Me.’
She also had quite a startling look back in the day, with her peroxide hairdo sitting on top of the sharpest black eyebrows you ever did see. When you look at old footage of her performing in the mid to late sixties, the one word that springs to my tired old mind is ‘saucy.’
You just know she took no prisoners, on or off stage.
She was born Jamesetta Hawkins (see what she did there?) in 1938 in Los Angeles. She had a very troubled upbringing. She never knew her father, and her mother was often absent for a lot of her early life.
Her early singing career was in the choir of her local Baptist church. Her vocal instructor physically abused her by punching her in her chest, in the attempt to get the more powerful voice that he wanted from such a small frame.
Due to the lack of parental control, she was very much the wild child.
Aside from the church, her early musical influences were from Doo Wop and she sang in a group called The Creolettes’ – do yourself a favour and check out their song ‘A Sunday Kind of Love.’
She then met musician Johnny Otis when only 14 (but claiming to be 18) and forged her mother’s signature to be able to go on the road with him. Otis took her under his wing and it was he, who flipped her name to form Etta James.
After some local R ‘n’ B’ record success with songs such as the risqué ‘Wallflower – Roll with me Henry’ when aged just 15, she was then soon opening for Little Richard on tour. An early RnB hit for her was the head nodding ‘Good Rockin’ Daddy’ and she then signed with Chess records in 1960. They immediately set about marketing her as the ‘Queen of Soul.’ For some, she would also be known as ‘The Matriarch of R&B.’
Early 1961 sees the release of ‘At Last’ which went on to reach the top 50 of the Billboard charts. Her musical style began evolving to cut across many genres. Gospel, soul and jazz among them.
Tunes from this era that I’d recommend, including her cover of the Otis Redding track ‘Security’ ‘Seven Day Fool ‘ ‘The Same Rope’ ‘Almost Persuaded’ and ‘Steal Away.’
Though still a very popular draw in concert, her later record sales never really reached the heights of her earlier career. The 1970s were indeed a tough period for Etta, one of heavy drinking, severe drug problems, and being jailed on many occasions.
Finally cleaned up, she popped up at the 1984 Olympics performing at the opening ceremony. Her later musical style by then was more jazz-based and it earned her, her first Grammy, the first of three wins overall, in 1994 for her Billie Holliday tribute album of that year. I guess better late than never.
1995 saw her release her autobiography ‘A Rage To Survive’ and she was then all over your telly in ‘96 singing the refrain of ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’ on a memorable advert for Diet Coke.
Beyonce played her in the 2008 film ‘Cadillac Records’ inspired by the story of Chess Records and meanwhile around the same time in the UK, she was an early influence on the singing career of one Adele Adkins. Other acknowledged influences include the singing styles of Tina Turner and Janis Joplin among others.
After receiving a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2008, she succumbed to Leukemia in 2012, dying just days short of her 74th birthday.
Last year Prince Harry married Meghan Markle and at one stage of the ceremony, the choir broke into Etta’s version of ‘This Little Light of Mine.’
‘Miss Peaches’ may have left us, but the voice remains.
And we say all say ‘Amen’ for that.
The Mumper of SE5.