Etta James passed away today at the age of 73 at Riverside Community Hospital in Riverside. James, born Jamesetta Hawkins, suffered a number of health problems at the time of her death, including leukemia and Alzheimer's disease. Her passing is a great loss to the world of music.
James began as a rhythm and blues singer, ironically becoming more of a traditional pop vocalist after signing to Chess Records in 1960. Some of her most popular tracks, including “Roll With Me Henry” (bowdlerized by Georgia Gibbs, Gisele MacKenzie and even James herself as “Dance With Me Henry”) and “At Last” are nearly synonymous with their time period. Listen carefully and you can hear her backup vocals on Chuck Berry's “Back In The USA.”
Notable devotees of the Cult of Etta include Beyoncé, Bonnie Raitt, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Diana Ross, Rod Stewart and Adele. Her range — seamlessly transitioning between smooth but throaty pop vocals and hard R&B belters — accounts for the large footprint she left in popular music.
Like all great musicians, James was more than just the sum total of her talent. Her vocals show a raw and visceral emotion almost entirely lacking in the contemporary world of Auto-Tune and pre-packaged pop.
Her biography resembles a blues song come to life: Born to a 14-year-old mother in Los Angeles, James never knew her father, but suspected he was notorious pool hustler Minnesota Fats. Her mother was frequently absent, forcing Etta to be raised by a series of caregivers. One, called “Sarge” often forced her to sing on demand for money, something that likely contributed to her chronic bedwetting. James also suffered from an addiction to heroin and painkillers.
James finally received her first Grammy in 1994, for an album of Billie Holiday covers. She is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has a star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood and received the Billboard R&B Founders Award in 2006. Of all her awards, it was the 1990 NAACP Image Award that meant the most to her, she said, adding that it came “from my own people.”
Etta James isn't just a product of talent or a hard knock life. She came out of a music industry from a different time and place, one cognizant of image without placing it above actual substance. For all of her vocal abilities, it's hard to imagine Etta becoming a star in the world of contemporary pop and R&B. The world of music is severely impoverished without her, and it is unlikely we will see anyone of her caliber again.
Goodbye, Etta. You'll be missed more than you can know.