This summer in the village where I live, a small but very well attended jazz festival took place for the first time. Local musicians – both professional and semi-professional – turned out and it was a huge success. There were sax players galore (notice how I mention them first) trumpet players resplendent in their shades and black shirts and all manner of trios. And did I mention that it was free? As I walked down the street with my younger son sipping on some cool lemonade, we paused to listen to a diminutive singer in high heels just belting out an amazingly stirring version of Etta James’ classic At Last. You know that something is working when a hard-boiled cynic like my young son comments “Man, that song is making me feel like crying. Weird!”
Weird or not, I totally got what he was saying.
Etta James was born in 1938 (her real name was Jamesette Hawkins, but this was tweaked to be a catchier stage name) and it was clear at a very early age that she could really sing. She had a thorough grounding in gospel music provided by the church but she was soon being drawn towards the more upbeat sounds of rhythm and blues, straight up blues and a newly evolving sound of rock and roll.
As a young teen, she formed her own trio and was impressive enough to attract some top level interest in the form of bandleader Johnny Otis who not only had James touring with him soon after, he also helped the group – known as ‘The Peaches’ record The Wallflower. This song was originally entitled Roll With Me Henry but the title was considered a bit too graphic for a 1950’s audience! Naughty or not, the song zoomed up the R&B charts and Etta was on her way.
Etta James has always been all about pushing the ‘suggestive’ button with her sexy delivery of almost every song she sings and backing it up with some pretty primal dance moves for anyone missing the original message …
By 1960 Etta was with the legendary Chess label and it was here that she truly blossomed – her vocal delivery and style was both nurtured and understood. Her famous tunes such as At Last with its aching and luxurious orchestral backing, Trust in Me and of course Don’t Cry, Baby were just a few of the many hits that she recorded. Etta would stay with Chess till the seventies although there were definitely some arid periods for her music along the way.
Like Billie Holiday, Etta James also struggled with drug addiction – specifically heroin – for a good deal of her life although she managed to keep it from consuming her and this has only added to her tenacity and scrappy public persona. She also struggled with obesity for many years but again, managed to overcome that too.
In 1993 Etta was inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame and in 2001 she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. 2003 saw the presentation of Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the four Grammys she already had to her credit. She has also performed multiple times at top jazz festivals such as Montreux.
Most recently, Beyoncé is starring as Etta James in a movie called Cadillac Records which showcases Chess Records. The movie does not have a formal release date as far as I can determine – but Adrien Brody is set to star as Leonard Chess and Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters. Sound excellent? Stay tuned for more details as they become available.