My childhood music exposure was largely limited to classic rock, early 19th century operettas, and dirge-like hymns coughed out by cadaver-like Southern Baptist congregations.
Because of this rather eclectic starting-ground, my music tastes have grown and expanded in strange ways, leaving me with dozens of musicians discovered tragically late in my life.
One of these tragically recent discoveries is the powerful, brazenly talented Etta James, who died last Friday morning in Riverside Calif. at the age of 73 due to complications from leukemia.
Jamesetta Hawkins started out as a gospel singer at the ripe old age of five, belting out the classics at St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles and becoming a local attraction.
Relocated by her sometimes-present mother to San Fransisco, James turned to secular music and formed a street corner singing group, The Creolettes, at 14.
James wrote the group a sassy comeback to Hank Ballard’s hit, “Work with Me Annie,” titled “Roll with Me Henry.” It caught the attention of bandleader Johnny Otis, who renamed the group Etta James and the Peaches and recorded the song in L.A. After they change the song’s title to “The Wallflower,”— “roll with me” was deemed too sexually explicit — the song rose to No. 2 on the R&B charts in 1954. James was 15.
Signed to Chess Records in 1959, James began churning out the hits, including her signature song and perennial wedding favorite, “At Last.”
She also began the long struggle with drugs that tanked her career and very nearly destroyed it. Unlike Amy Wine- house, one of her many musical progeny, James managed to clean up her act and was invited to perform the national anthem at the 1984 Olympic Games.
Four-time Grammy Award winner, member of both The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and The Blues Hall of Fame, James left an indelible mark on modern music. Adele cites James as her biggest influence. Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling” is a tribute. Beyonce Knowles played James in the movie “Cadillac Records.” Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, R. Kelly, and even The Rolling Stones attest to her influence.
“A lot of people think the blues is depressing, but that’s not the blues I’m singing,” James told The Los Angeles Times in 1992. “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.”
So take a moment, pause The Eagles, halt The Mikado, and turn on some Etta James. At last.
Here are my five favorite songs of hers:
1. At Last
2. Something’s Got a Hold of Me
3. The Wallflower
4. Tell Mama