I was feeling a little overwhelmed the other week. Nothing major, just one of those days when it felt like ‘one thing after another’. My daughter made me a cup of tea and put on our Etta James playlist. A couple of minutes later, I felt tears rolling down my face, and a sense of relief washed over me. When I listen to her music and think of her life, it always helps me find perspective.
I’ve long been a fan of Etta James. Maybe you’re already familiar with her? You’ll know some of her songs for sure. ‘Sunday Kind of Love’ ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’ ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ and ‘At Last’ are just a few of her most played songs.
Her influence can be seen in the vocals of female artists across the decades; Tina Turner, Gladys Knight, Janis Joplin and Diana Ross in the 60s and 70s. More recently Adele, Amy Winehouse and even Christina Aguilera have paid homage to this legendary singer.
Etta James is sometimes described as a torch singer. I can understand why, but I wouldn’t want to put her in any kind of box, including that one. A woman who kept her performing and recording career alive through more than 5 decades is a hell of a lot more than a torch singer.
I first discovered her music through a cover of one of her most famous songs: I’d Rather Go Blind sung by Beth Hart with Joe Bonamassa. The lyrics cut me straight to the core. Later when I heard the original I became curious about where it came from. I captured the song on Shazam so when I followed the tag and to a picture of Etta James with her incredible blonde hair and eye brows like two question marks, I immediately wanted to know more about her too.
Perhaps you are familiar with Beyoncé’s portrayal of Etta James in the 2008 Biopic, ‘Cadillac Records’? While it’s far from historically accurate, I do love that film. In my opinion Beyoncé was a good choice for the part, though she was undoubtedly (at the very least) a little ‘cleaner’.
Etta herself commented,
“She [Beyoncé] is going to have a hill to climb, because Etta James ain’t been no angel! I wasn’t as bourgie as she is; she’s bourgeois. She knows how to be a lady; she’s like a model. I wasn’t like that. I smoked in the bathroom in school. I was kinda arrogant.”
If you want to go deeper than the tragic but sugar-coated portrayal of Etta than the one in Cadillac Records, you might want to do as I did, and read her autobiography ‘Rage to survive.’ The title gives you a taste of the real woman right from the start.
Jamesetta Hawkins was born to a 14 year old African-American mother and a white father (rumoured to be Minnesota Fats – a pool shark).
Raised in Los Angeles by adoptive parents, by the age of 5 she was a gospel prodigy, singing in her church choir and on the radio. When Jamesetta’s adoptive mother passed away, her birth mother Dorothy reappeared and together they moved to San Francisco. Dorothy’s lifestyle mainly evolved around men and bars, and a largely unsupervised teenage Etta soon started drinking, smoking weed and making music with a couple of her girlfriends. Her first band was a vocal trio, the Creolettes. There’s a great story of how they got themselves auditioned by West Coast Rhythm and Blues band leader Johnny Otis, as told by Otis to Rolling Stone magazine,
“We were up in San Francisco for a date at the Fillmore. I was asleep in my hotel room when my manager phoned. He was in a restaurant and a little girl was bugging him: she wanted to sing for me. I told him to have her come around to the Fillmore that night. But she grabbed the phone from him and shouted that she wanted to sing for me NOW. I told her that I was in bed—and she said she was coming over anyway. Well, she showed up with two other little girls. And when I heard her, I jumped out of bed and began getting dressed. We went looking for her mother since she was a minor. I brought her to LA, where she lived in my home like a daughter.”
Despite her determination to audition for Otis in his hotel room, James remarked later in Rolling Stone,
“I was so bashful, I wouldn’t come out of the bathroom.”
Otis wanted to sign her and asked for her mother’s signed consent on her recording contract. James signed it herself, as her mother Dorothy was then in prison. Her forgery allowed her to go on the road with Johnny Otis. He changed the name of the girl band to The Peaches, and paid the girls $10 each for every gig. It was Otis who suggested she change her name from Jamesetta to Etta James.
Etta’s first recording “Roll With Me Henry” was for Modern Records in 1955 (home to John Lee Hooker and B.B. King among others). Etta continued to record for Modern and toured the R&B circuit as support act for early Rock and Roll musicians Little Richard and Chuck Berry.
Boyfriend Harvey Fuqua introduced James to Chicago blues label Chess records in 1959. It was here that her talent was nurtured and she became a rising star. Her startling debut album ‘At Last’ brought out the best in Etta. Phil and Leonard Chess encouraged her powerful vocals to soar on a critically acclaimed collection of songs ranging from jazz and blues to soul and R&B.
Marketing Etta James as ‘The Queen of Soul’ was part of a strategy that led to a string of hits from this album. ’All I Could Do Was Cry’ and ‘At Last’ hit the number 2 spot on the R&B charts in 1960 and 1961 respectively.
In 1967 (encouraged by Leonard Chess) James moved to Alabama to record an album with the Muscle Shoals house band at Fame studios.
Just listen to the title track ‘Tell Mama’ — it’s the first song on my Etta James playlist.
That horn section was brought out the grittier side of Etta’s roaring voice, and the Southern soul recording helped find her way back into the R&B top ten. Released as a single, the B side of ‘Tell Mama’ was the first song I fell in love with; ’I’d Rather Go Blind’. Co-written with ex-boyfriend Harvey Fuqua, it is reputed to tell the story of the end of their relationship. Perhaps that is why it rings so true, and is one of the saddest songs of jealousy and heartbreak I’ve ever heard.
Working as a performer and recording artist throughout the 1960s and into the 70s was a challenge for Etta as heroin addiction affected her both personally and professionally. She might have been a star, but that didn’t stop her struggles with drugs and bad men. She took herself to rehab but found it hard to stay clean in the outside world and ended up in prison several times.
Her musical drive was never-ending; and she continued to tour, perform and record for many years. In 1973 her ‘Etta James’ album won a grammy nomination, in part for its creative combination of rock and funk sounds. After completing her contract with Chess in 1977, she signed with Warner Brothers Records and her subsequent albums, including ‘Deep in the Night’ received high critical acclaim. Her ‘Blues to the Bone’ album brought her a third Grammy Award, this time for best traditional blues album.
One surprise that came later on in Etta’s life was when she had a UK Top 10 hit in 1996 for her cover of Willie Dixon’s ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’ after it was used as the soundtrack for a hugely popular Diet Coke advertisement. It was a cinema commercial as I recall, and worked really well on the big screen. If you don’t remember it, you can watch it here.
If you have time to watch just one more video, see this. Etta James with B.B. King and Doctor John singing ‘I’d Rather Go Blind.’ If it doesn’t make you cry the first time, just watch it again.
In 1993 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Etta James died from Leukaemia age 73 in 2012.