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January 27, 2012

In the Dust #16: Etta James, 1938-2012

by @thoughtontracks

All I need

Is someone like you

My dearest darling

Please, love me too

Within my heart

I pray your answer’s yes

I’ll make your life

Full of happiness

When you need me

I’ll be there by your side

Oh, I pledge my love to you

With God as our guide

Nothing, nothing, nothing in this world

Can keep us apart

My dearest darling

I offer you my heart

Whenever you need me

I’ll be there by your side

I pledge my love to you

With God as our guide

Nothing, nothing, nothing in this world

Can keep us apart

My dearest darling

I’m offering you my heart

My dearest darling

-“My Dearest Darling” – Listen

Etta James, At Last! (1961)

One week ago today, the world witnessed the death of one of the greatest singers of all-time. On Friday, January 20th, 2012, Etta James passed away. She was 73.

To many, she possessed a voice beyond compare. She was a symbol of strength, resolve and triumph over adversity. Her songs became anthems, embodied national consciousness, serenaded a President and garnered her 6 Grammy’s and countless nominations. She was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame – twice. One of the first blues singers to “cross over”, her versatility won the adoration of fans from nearly every genre, and her star remains one of the most brilliant in any blues, pop or soul constellation.

She was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25th, 1938, in Los Angeles, California. Her mother was 14-year old Dorothy Hawkins. Her father, James speculated, was the elegant, reigning king of pool, billiard player Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone.

Due to her mother’s frequent absences and erratic relations with numbers of men, James dubbed her mother “the mystery lady” and spent the majority of her time with caretakers. She took up singing at the age of five, receiving lessons from a musical director at a local church. She quickly became a popular attraction, often to her detriment. One of James’s caretakers, “Sarge”, would hold poker nights and his guests often requested that James sing for them. “Sarge”, at all hours of the night, would wake her up, drag her downstairs and, as she was a childhood bed-wetter, force her to perform, often in a soiled nightgown. This begat in James an intense, instinctual defiance that flared anytime it was demanded she sing, a reaction that, out of necessity, drove her to do things her way, and aided in summoning a vast wealth of emotion and determination totally unheard in all but a few other singers.

In 1950, after the death of her caretakers, James, 14, moved with her biological mother to San Francisco, where she began to fall deeply in love with doo wop. She formed a girl group, The Creolettes, a name inspired by their light skin. There, in many differing accounts, they met Johnny Otis, a legendary multi-instrumentalist, DJ, talent scout, producer and jack-of-all-trades who also died last week, only three days before James, at the age of 90. Otis got the girls a deal with Modern Records, changed their name to The Peaches, Etta’s from Jamesetta to “Etta James”, and set about recording their first hit. “Dance With Me, Henry,” a reworking of Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me, Annie,” co-authored by James charted at #1 on Hot Rhythm and Blues Tracks, and The Peaches were booked as the opening act on Little Richard’s upcoming nation-wide tour. But there remained stumbling blocks ahead.

During The Peaches’ tour with Little Richard, “Dance With Me, Henry,” was rerecorded by Georgia Gibbs, a pop singer, and retitled, “The Wallflower.” It went straight to #1 on the Billboard charts. James was irate. He next single for Modern Records, “Good Rockin’ Daddy,” also did very well, but only on the R&B charts, and the majority of her other singles for Modern were flops. James, fed up, yearning for stardom and confident she could get it, jumped ship at the conclusion of her contracted and signed, solo, with Chess Records. With the help of Leonard Chess, Willie Dixon and the songwriters at Chess Records, and Harvey Fuqua, fling and founder of the doo-wop kings, The Moonlighters, Etta James would record some of the most compelling, unforgettable and aurally immaculate crossover tunes in the American songbook.

Many of James’s songs are now ubiquitous, known to some as well as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, but they are nonetheless substantial pieces of an astounding career. Each speaks for itself, from the monstrously popular, “At Last”, to deeper tracks like “In My Diary”, and the author’s personal favorite, “Trust In Me”, layers of meaning issuing fruitfully from James’s effortless vocal delivery, at times wistful, ebullient and then so suddenly sullen, poignant and devastating.

Her Chess Box is required listening, as are her early recordings with The Peaches and later work like the completely gutting, perhaps semi-autobiographically inspired, Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday, as well as 2003’s Let’s Roll, and 2004’s Blues To The Bone, all of which won a Grammy.

In her 73 short years before succumbing to complications of Alzheimer’s and leukemia, James had cycled from doo wop to R&B to blues to pop and back again, mastering every style and interpreting standards from nearly every school with matchless grace and poise. Like Bo Diddley and the blues, she effortlessly established a lasting pathway between rhythm and blues and rock and roll, allowing for the veins of jazz and soul to grow through her and latch like ivy, constructing as she crossed, beneath a fog of undeserved ignorance and under-appreciation, a natural bridge of intertwining traditions, American earth as its base, strong, unyielding and deeply rich, much like the architect herself.

Rest in peace, Etta James. Your lonely days are over.

Written by Ben Brundage

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