Friday, January 20, 2012

At Last, Etta James is at Rest

My musical tastes are all over the map, with the distinct exclusion of opera, so it's not surprising that I can listen to Hot Chelle Rae and Etta James on the same day.  The legendary James travelled a road that ended as roughly as it began, succumbing to leukemia, dementia and kidney ailments.  One of music's original bad girls, she never knew who her father was, although famous billiards player Minnesota Fats would neither confirm or deny the possibility, saying he just couldn't remember everything.  Her mother was a con artist, substance abuser and only an occasional presence in James' life.  The singer was raised by a church-going couple who owned the rooming house where her mother once lived.

She sang in her Church choir, performing solos so distinctively that Hollywood celebrities were known to attend, just to hear her voice. But Etta, then known as Jamesette Hawkins, found it impossible to resist the siren song of rhythm and blues.  She described her ambitions as ''I wanted to be rare, I wanted to be noticed, I wanted to be exotic as a Cotton Club chorus girl, and I wanted to be obvious as the most flamboyant hooker on the street. I just wanted to be."

She was "discovered" singing with her girlfriends on the street corners of San Francisco when she was just 15 years old, by bandleader Johnny Otis in the 1950's and toured with his band, earning $10 a night, after forging her mother's signature on a permission slip that verified she was 18.  In 1959 she signed with Chicago's Chess Label and belted out her hit songs while touring with the likes of Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Into the late 1960's, she recorded "Tell Mama", a groundbreaking soul album filled with the fusion of funk, gospel and rock.  But James' success was always pitted against her drug demon, heroin.  She was drawn to it, seeing uber-cool jazz icons like Billie Holiday among others using the substance.  But her drug use nearly destroyed her, landing her in jail and sapping both her money and her talents. After years of addiction, she cleaned up and clawed her way back to a measure of popularity again in the 1980's.  Her battles continued as her weight see-sawed wildly and she fought an addiction to painillers.

Arguably her most famous recording, "At Last", was the song that newly-elected President and Mrs. Barack Obama danced to at the inauguration in 2009.  James reportedly was rankled at not being invited to participate in the event, complaining that singer Beyonce wasn't the right one to sing her anthem.

James had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, awarded four Grammies as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame before her health spiraled downward.  She was 73 years old and an American original. 


Johanna Garth said...

Awww, I love Etta James and everything else too! Like you I'm a musical omnivore.

Alison said...

Musical omnivore: I love it! Etta James' voice was rare and lovely, and I will miss her. Thanks so much for the beautiful blog post.

jenny milchman said...

Very interesting history. May she rest in peace--and music.