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Last week I tweeted that Etta James wasn’t long for this world, then Friday came the news that Ms James had passed away that morning (20 January), at a hospital in Riverside County, California. The quality of her life had diminished considerably, so it was expected and for me a relief that she was no longer in pain, suffering or not having a basic quality of life.
Millions of words have already been written, about Etta James following her passing on her career, her accomplishments and even her failings. Some I’m sure were written months ago by journalists in preparation of her death. Sad but true, that’s how it rolls.
Where do I begin when paying tribute to a woman who lived it, felt it, suffered and sung it. Etta James has been my favourite female vocalists for decades, and I am blessed to have had the opportunity to see her live, a hand full of times.
She was a master of tone, phrasing, delivery and clarity. And oh what emotional versatility and profundity, whether she was wailing about loneliness, unrequited love, jealousy, revenge or betrayal in a bluesy slow tune, or buoyant in an up beat tempo like Tough Mary or In The Basement. Etta James always “owned” whatever she sang. Etta James had “lived” many of her songs. When I listen to her, I feel her pain, anger, bitterness and joy. That’s the depth her phrasing, clarity and her personal experience brought to the songs she sang.
Born Jamesetta Hawkins 73 years ago to a 14 year old mother, Dorothy, who possessed not an iota of marternal feeling or responsibility. She was bounced from family friends to relative and back again as a child, that it’s no wonder much of her life was troubled with drugs, periods of incarceration, rehab and difficult relationships, but the one thing constant in her life was music. At 5 she was singing in a church choir and soon considered a child prodigy. At 16, Etta James already had two chart hits and was touring with Little Richard.
On par with some of the great and acclaimed entertainers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Nina Simone, Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin, her repertoire exceeded their’s, Etta could sing it all. The great standards, doo wop, blues, jazz, country and even rock. Her rendition of Prince’s “Purple Rain” amazed me and Randy Newman’s “Let’s Burn Down The Cornfield” leaves me tingling.
Etta James may have sabotaged her own career along the way with her drug and alcohol addiction along with other problems, but her life long fans stuck with her. I’ve enjoyed her live shows but admit one show I attended in California, brought me to tears as people walked out in disgust and some booed. I just sat there until the end, like a good captain going down with her ship. Walking out wasn’t an option for me.
Etta could give Rhianna, Lady Gaga and all the other whipper snappers a run for their money on raunchiness and innuendos, but this time (not the only time), she was down right crude, although I chalked it up to her being under the influence of something. Slurring her words and being out of sync with the band only made it worse. To say it was embarrassing is an understatement.
Etta never enjoyed great financial rewards for her work. Like other black American entertainers of her generation, she was paid a flat fee for her recordings and did not receive royalties on her record sales. What did they know back then, especially with the racial climate of America. Etta along with her contemporaries, were not well educated nor possessed great business acumen. She trusted others to count the pennies while she did what she did best.
An alumni of Chess Records, the Chicago based label that showcased but cheated the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and Johnny Lee Hooker, Etta was cheated out of royalties due to her, by Leonard and Phil Chess and others. In the 14 years she recorded with Chess Records she only received $10,000. The Chess brothers would often compensate with Cadillacs or houses.
If you had never heard of her (I can’t imagine why) or if you want to know more, check out her Biography “Rage to Survive”, and let her regale you with tales of her her chaotic childhood, the stars she has know, her tragedies and triumphs, told more honestly and raw than any other biography I have ever read.
I remember getting high with Miles Davis. I was surprised he looked so young ’cause I associated him with the older bebop generation. I mean, here was the hippest cat in the city, the man who blew “My Old Flame” on Dorothy’s records so sweet and pretty until you were ready to melt; here was the gruff-talking clean-dressing Prince of Darkness up in my room looking for good dope and sharp conversation.
Etta James…Rage To Survive: The Etta James Story
Etta James may have passed on, but her music is immortal, for that we are lucky. We even have the ability to restore and refine those earliest recordings to bring out the true beauty of them, a beauty that would have been lost over time with the older methods of recording.
Ms James, thank you.
This was originally published on The Duchess of Hackney’s blog on 24 January 2012