Gary: “In January of this 2012 we lost a Blues Giant. Now I will accept full responsibility for not getting to this person earlier, I just forgot. I was watching Cadillac Records (The Movie) and it refreshed my memory.
The Movie I am talking about was about Chess Records and I am talking about the great Etta James. Etta had a turbulent life, but she also found success. Unfortunately, she had a serious drug problem and left us at age 73, but she had been in poor health for a number of years.
Her song “All I could do was Cry / At Last” and “Something’s got a hold on me” I guess would be my personal favourites, so lets take a look at a pretty wild career of Etta James.
James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, California, on 25th January 1938, to an unmarried fourteen-year-old mother, Dorothy Hawkins.
According to Etta, her mother claimed that her father was the white Rudolph “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone, and that they received financial support from him on the condition that they keep his paternity a secret. This seems unlikely, though it has not been definitively disproved.
At the time, Wanderone was known to be managing a pool hall in Washington, D.C. and had not yet become known to be the cross-country traveler he later became.
Jamesetta received her first professional vocal training at five years old from James Earle Hines, musical director of the Echoes of Eden choir at St Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
Her family moved to San Francisco in 1950, and Jamesetta –by then a self-described juvenile delinquent– teamed up with two other girls to form a doo-wop singing group called the Creolettes.
In 1954 when the girls were 14 they came to the attention of influential R&B bandleader Johnny Otis, who saw great potential in Jamesetta, the lead singer.She and Otis wrote a song together in which she set her own lyrics to the tune of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ recent hit “Work With Me Annie.” She called it “Roll with Me, Henry“.
Otis particularly liked the song, and against Jamesetta’s mother’s wishes, he got the trio to go to Los Angeles and had them signed to Modern Records to record “Roll With Me Henry” in 1954. When some disc jockeys complained that the title was too suggestive, Modern thought the title should be toned down so the trio renamed it “The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry)” and released it in 1955.
Otis got Jamesetta to change her name to Etta James and she named her vocal group The Peaches. (Richard Berry, a Los Angeles doo-wop luminary, is featured on some of their records.)
“The Wallflower” reached #2 on the rhythm and blues charts in February 1955, but was undercut in the wider market by a rushed-out cover version by Georgia Gibbs on Mercury Records; in fact, the very first time Gibbs was recorded in studio, they went with her first take and it became #1 on the top 100 songs nationally.
The song’s royalties were divided between Hank Ballard, Etta James, and Johnny Otis, and its huge success attracted the attention of the R&B world, resulting in James going on tour with Little Richard.
On the tour, though, according to James, she witnessed and experienced situations to which young girls / minors are not usually privy, and this is when she allegedly acquired a drug habit.
Soon after the success of “Wallflower”, The Peaches and Etta James parted company, but this did not halt her career. She continued to record and release albums throughout much of the decade, and enjoyed more success.
Etta James toured with Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Otis Redding in the fifties, and has cited Watson as the most significant influence on her style.
In 1960, James signed a recording contract with Chess Records. She went on to have the biggest success of her career from this label, recording her biggest and most memorable hits.
Leonard Chess, one of the founders of Chess Records, helped Etta James along the way. He saw the potential for her to go in a more pop-oriented direction, and she started recording more pop tunes for the label.
The year 1961 became a year of great change for James. In 1961 came the release of one of her first pop-oriented tunes called “At Last”. The song became a big hit in 1961, reaching #2 on the R&B charts. The song even went as far as #22 on the pop charts that year. It became her signature song.
Other songs, such as “Trust in Me”, also became hits, and the 1962 tune “Something’s Got a Hold On Me” showed more of James’ gospel side, a genre she had sung since childhood.
She had other big hits in the 1960s, but mainly on the R&B charts: the song “Pushover” in 1963 and “Stop the Wedding”, “Fool That I Am”, and “Don’t Cry Baby”, were hits for her between 1961 and 1963.
Her 1963 album Etta James Rocks the House, recorded at Nashville’s “New Era” club, also gave her career a boost. James then became one of the most successful R&B artists of the 1960s, having many more top ten and top twenty hit singles. Performing in Memphis, Tennessee helped make her into a blues icon.
In 1967, James released her next hit single, “Tell Mama”, and it became a top ten hit on the R&B charts.
After a dry period of no hits for almost four years, “Tell Mama” once more made James a household name. The follow-up, “Security”, was also a success, and proved that James had staying power on the charts again.
Whilst less success came for James after this hit, she was still on the charts regularly and, despite the death of Leonard Chess, stayed with the Chess label into 1975.
Towards the end of the Chess years though, she went into more rock-based songs. She recorded for many other labels, and continued to release albums, such as 1978’s Deep In the Night on Atlantic Records.
April 15th 1987 Etta James & Dr. John – I’d Rather Go Blind / Live at Ebony Showcase Theatre in Los Angeles, (BB King & Friends)
Her 1988 album Seven Year Itch proved this comeback capability; the album showed more of her soul side.
1989: Video – Damn Your Eyes – Live at Montreaux Jazz Festival (pardon the poor colour quality but Etta’s performance was wonderful)
Drug-related and romantic problems interfered with her career, but James managed to maintain a career throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Later in life, she struggled with obesity. She reached nearly twenty-nine stones, experienced mobility and knee problems, and often needed a wheelchair.
In 2001 Etta James and The Roots Band – I’d Rather Go Blind
In 2003, she underwent gastric bypass surgery and lost over fourteen stones.
After decades of touring, recording for various labels and drifting in and out of the public eye, Etta James found herself in the news in 2009 after Beyoncé Knowles recorded a version of “At Last” closely modeled on hers. (Ms. Knowles played Ms. James in the 2008 movie “Cadillac Records,” a fictionalized account of the rise and fall of Chess.) Ms. Knowles also performed “At Last” at an inaugural ball for President Obama in Washington.
When the movie was released, Etta James had kind words for Beyonce’s portrayal. But in February 2009, referring specifically to the Washington performance, she told an audience, “I can’t stand Beyoncé,” and threatened to “whip” the younger singer for doing “At Last.” She later said she had been joking, but she did add that she wished she had been invited to sing the song herself for the new president.
Etta James lived out the final years of her life in Riverside, California with her husband Artis Mills. After battling leukemia, she died on Friday, 20th January 2012 at a Riverside hospital in the arms of her 43-year-old son Donto. She was 73.
Though her life had its share of troubles to the end — her husband and sons were locked in a long-running battle over control of her estate, which was resolved in her husband’s favor only weeks before her death — Ms. James said she wanted her music to transcend unhappiness rather than reflect it.
“A lot of people think the blues is depressing,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1992, “but that’s not the blues I’m singing. When I’m singing blues, I’m singing life. People that can’t stand to listen to the blues, they’ve got to be phonies.”