What is there to be said about Etta James that hasn’t already been written or spoken?
29 studio albums
3 live albums
30 awards and recognition from 8 different organizations including the Grammy awards and the Blues Foundation
Multiple Hall of Fame inductee
A legend, a fighter who possessed an instantly recognizable contralto voice, Etta James needs no introduction. Born in 1938, the singer had a tough childhood, living with foster parents for much of the time. Like so many blues singers of the age, she began by singing gospel in church. Both her first vocal tutor and her foster father beat her but by 15 she had started to have hit records, and could make her own rules. Hits followed, including The Wallflower, an answer song to Work With Me, Annie, originally called Roll With Me, Henry. The title was changed due to its suggestive nature, and changed again for Georgia Gibbs’ 1955 version, where it was known as Dance With Me, Henry.
Etta signed for Chess Records in 1960 and released her first album that year. She recorded regularly for 18 years until 1978, when she left Chess battling heroin addiction and alcoholism.
This period was her most successful era, during which she released All I Could Do Was Cry, Trust in Me, Something’s Got a Hold on Me, I Just Want to Make Love to You, At Last, Fool That I Am, Don’t Cry Baby, Pushover and Tell Mama (with its well known b-side I’d Rather Go Blind). During this period, James was noted for the use of strings on her songs. She also had a wide ranging repertoire, including jazz and blues standards, doo-wop, RnB along gospel.
In the 1970s Etta James became a popular live concert and festival performer, all the while still releasing albums. She added rock and funk tunes to her musical range, working with both rock producer Gabriel Mekler in 1973 and, on her return to recording, Barry Beckett in 1989. She appeared at most of the top jazz festivals including Montreux, Monterey, San Francisco and New Orleans. The North Sea Jazz Festival was a particular favorite; she appeared there six times between 1978 and 1993.
As the years rolled on she started to receive the kind of honors due to her enduring status. She was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll (1993), Blues and Rockabilly (2001) Halls of Fame and received several Grammys from 1994 including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. She also won The Blues Foundation’s Soul/Blues Female Artist of the Year award nine times. In total Etta James received over 30 awards and recognition from eight different organizations.
Etta James died of leukemia in January 2012, just before her 74th birthday.