Wednesday, February 1, 2012

an r&b matriarch worth remembering.

professionally, she was known as the matriarch of rhythm & blues;
personally, she lived a whole lot more blues than rhythm.

etta james was born jamesetta hawkins in la on january 25, 1938.
her mother was 14yo & unwed; her father was never known.

she was raised by her mother's landlady, mama lu, a good, churchgoing woman.
which is how jamesetta began singing at la's st. paul baptist church at the age of five.

but at twelve, jamesetta's mama lu died &
she was sent to san francisco to live with relatives.
mostly unsupervised, she quickly turned into a wild child,
drinking wine, smoking weed, hanging around with gangsters & pimps,
& apparently attracted to abusive boyfriends.

but jamesetta kept on singing.
at 14, she formed a girl group; they called themselves the creolettes.
musician johnny otis mentored the teens, changing their name to the peaches
& giving the lead singer her stage name by reversing jamesetta into etta james.

at 15, etta cut her first record with the trio,
a response to the hit "work with me, annie" by hank ballard & the moonlighters;
originally titled "roll with me, henry," the suggestive title was changed to "the wallflower."
it rose to #2 on the r&b charts in 1954,
& earned the girls an opening spot with little richard's national tour.

by 1960, etta was signing with chicago label chess records,
home to chuck berry, muddy waters & other big-name black artists.
she enjoyed a string of hits, including her iconic "at last;"
she became chess' first big female star.

but etta's career grew quieter as she began a struggle with drug addiction
that lasted the rest of her life —
from heroin in the 60s to cocaine in the 70s to painkillers as recently as 2010.

her husband, artis mills, took the rap when they were both arrested
for heroin possession in 1972, and served ten years.
etta was also arrested for drug use, check fraud & forgery,
but was sentenced to treatment rather than prison.
sadly, it never really took, & there were many return trips to rehab.

still, etta kept on singing.
she toured with & opened for the rolling stones during the late 70s & early 80s.
she performed at the opening ceremony of the 1984 olympic games in la.
she toured, recorded more than 40 albums for various labels,
won six grammys — including a lifetime achievement award —
& 17 blues music awards. she was inducted into
the rock & roll hall of fame in 1993, the blues hall of fame in 2001.

in 2008, etta enjoyed a renewed sense of celebrity
when beyonce knowles played her in the movie "cadillac records,"
a fictionalized account of the rise & fall of chess.

but her decades of hard living caught up with her
in a combination of conditions, including dementia & leukemia.
complications of the cancer were what finally silenced etta's versatile voice.

she died january 20th at the age of 73.

etta is survived by her husband of 42 years, artis,
her two sons by another relationship,
& four grandchildren.

she might never have spoken truer words
than when she told the la times
"when i'm singing the blues, i'm singing life."

here's one of the only videos i can find of
ms. etta james performing her biggest hit, "at last,"
here in austin @ austin city limits, july 2005:

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