The Beloved Etta James, Home At Last (RIP 1/25/38-1/20/12)

by Kitty Savage

The great woman of soul, the purveyor of feisty female anthems of love and no-fuss, Etta James, has passed on Jnauary 20th, 2012, from complications of lukemia. Etta, who was 73, is known for her raw vocal power and sultry, seducing tenor. Just five days before the singer’s 74th birthday, Etta succumbed to her battle with the disease and let go.

You can hear the determination and realism the blueswoman roared with in Etta’s tunes spanning a 50 year career, not without its low points. “Miss Peaches,” as she was sometimes called in reference to her early role in the female doo-wop group The Peaches, let it be known she was an aggressively talented woman who could easily tear through the hearts of listeners of any age. Beyonce played her character in the movie Cadillac Records, and Christina Aguilera had performed “At Last” on the Grammy’s about 10 years ago, proving the timelessness of Etta’s gift and immeasurable influence she has had on popular music today. In the funk world, artists like Brides of Funkenstein, Betty Davis, and Parlet may have looked up to Etta, who started her career in the 50’s and gained fame with other songs like the confrontational “Tell Mama,” the soaring “Sunday Kind of Love” and desperately pleaded “I’d Rather Go Blind.”

Etta was born to a 14 year old mother in 1938, and named Jamesetta Hawkins. Her mother, Dorothy, had many relationships over Etta’s young life, leading the little girl to brand her mama as “The Mystery Lady.” Her father’s identity was not revealed to Etta, but she suspected that he was a white pool player in town. Neglected by her mother’s rousing popularity, Etta was raised by a succession of Dorothy’s boyfriends and others helping out. One of her caretakers, “Sarge,” had her singing in the church and taking lessons from age 5. He attempted to profit off the child’s talent, but the church refused to pay him for her singing, so occasionally little Etta would be woken up to midnight abuse and song requests of Sarge’s drunken poker buddies. It is not hard to understand, hearing this story, where Etta’s anger came from that shone through her commanding voice.

Below, listen to “Sweet Memories” from Etta during the Summer of Love.

While things were getting funky in the 70’s, Etta flowed with the times and released some ultra-funky tunes. Here’s 1974’s “You Give Me What I Want”

In 1998, Etta covered Sly Stone’s “If You Want Me To Stay”

As an adult with many successes to claim, Etta also battled addictions which caused a haitus in the singer’s endeavors until 1980’s “Seven Year Itch” album was released, the title perhaps reflective of the struggle Etta endured getting clean.

Etta brought in a wealth of awards in her lifetime, winning six Grammys and seventeen Blues Awards over the span of her career, along with great honors of being inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame and The Grammy Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone named her #22 on their list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, and #62 of Best Artists of All Time.

Surprisingly, amid rumors of Etta’s mental condition suffering from dementia, the soulmama was able to release her final album in 2011, which promises the same depth and richness of her gritty, emotional, defensive voice. The Dreamer starts out on “Groove Me” which is followed by more classic-sounding tunes like “Champagne and Wine.” The album, released close in time to Mavis Staples album You Are Not Alone, would compliment each other’s sound well in the authoritative diva world of soul, rock n’ roll, blues, R&B, funk, and just straight Classic music that never ages.

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