A definitive, earnest and passionate voice in the history of American pop music has gone silent today. Legendary R&B chanteuse Etta James died this morning at the age of 73 in Riverdale, California, reportedly from complications tied to leukemia. Along with this week's deaths of fellow giants of the genre Johnny Otis and Jimmy Castor, the passing of James marks the closing of a critical chapter in the annals of R&B history, an era that saw the birth of an indelible sound that still influences the pop charts.
Known by most for her tender and heartfelt 1960 ballad "At Last," James helped steer the direction and sound of the blues and R&B genre in the 1950s and 60s, putting a definitive stamp on standards like "Stormy Weather" and "I Just Want to Make Love to You." Her distinctive tone and vocal phrasing would make her an early matriarch of a young genre, an influential role she'd reclaim in the 1980s after struggles with addiction. Her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001 and into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 and 2008 speak to her enduring and permanent role.
Born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938 to a fourteen-year-old mother in Los Angeles, James would take her first musical instruction in a church setting, performing for parishioners at L.A.'s St. Paul Baptist Church and for its musical director, James Earle Hines. From those roots, James would enter the burgeoning R&B world via the pop music of the time, including doo-wop and early blues. Her meeting with Johnny Otis (who passed away yesterday) as a fourteen-year-old girl would help steer her career. Otis helped the young singer forge her professional moniker and find her first gig on a record label, a spot on Modern Records that would lead to her first hit. The 1955 tune "Dance With Me, Henry," an answer to Hank Ballard's popular "Roll With Me, Henry," would be the first of many successes for James.
From there, James went to Chess Records, the label that released her debut and definitive record, At Last!, in 1960. Along with insistent and affecting covers of Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love to You" and Louis Prima's "A Sunday Kind of Love," the album included the song that would become James's signature number for the coming decades. "At Last," a song penned by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren and originally recorded by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, was a perfect fit for James's unique fusion of power and passion.
Her delivery borrowed from the earnestness of the blues, the depth of gospel and the emotion of soul, making the ballad more than its composite parts. The power of James's version would make it a permanent favorite at weddings and karaoke bars; its cultural impact only grew over the decades, earning a spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
James's accomplishments in the early 1960s would become a high mark of her career. While she'd go on to experiment with funk styles in the 1970s and make a marked recovery from years of addiction with the release of The Seven Year Itch in 1988, her legacy remained rooted in the eighteen years she spent with Chess and her definitive version of "At Last"
Although she maintained a recording career throughout the 1990s and made television appearances into the 2000s, her lasting legacy had already been formalized. It was an image and a power she sketched out in her 1995 biography, "Rage to Survive," a goal cited in James's Associated Press obituary.
"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," James wrote. "I just wanted to be."
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