Many great singers passed through the hands of late great soul/R&B producer Jerry Wexler, from Aretha Franklin to Dusty Springfield, but Etta James was a singer he willingly waited 20 long years to work with. ‘Etta is a church in herself,’ he said in his autobiography, adding: ‘Her voice is a mighty influence, her musical personality able to express an extraordinary range of moods.’ He further described her as ‘A woman used but not spent, abused but never defeated, vulnerable but through sheer strength of will, victorious.’
Jamesetta Hawkins (her real name) was born in Los Angeles, California, in January 1938. She received her first vocal training from James Earle Hines, musical director of the Echoes of Eden choir at St Paul’s Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
Moving to San Francisco at the age of 12, her talent was spotted two years later by R&B Svengali Johnny Otis while part of a trio, the Creolettes, she’d formed with friends. Her recording debut came in 1954 fronting Otis’ band with Richard Berry, the song a response to Hank Ballard’s salacious ‘WorkWith Me Annie’ entitled ‘TheWallflower’. (Georgia Gibbs covered it for the white market as the cleaned-up ‘Dance With Me Henry’.) The risqué nature of the song, compounded by the 16 year-old singer’s extreme youth, required a subtle change of name to Etta James.
‘The Wallflower’ was a 1955 hit on the Modern label, reaching Number 1 on the R&B charts. But success was to prove fleeting, and Etta then remained out of the spotlight for five years, occasionally touring with Zydeco artist Clifton Chenier’s band. It was only when she made her way to Chicago and signed to the Chess label in 1960 – she would stay with them for 16 years, appearing on the firm’s Argo, Chess and Cadet labels – that Etta James’ career really took off. We concentrate on those Argo recordings on these 2LPs. Having been originally designed to accommodate the Chess expansion and focus on Jazz artists in 1955, Argo would offer much in the way of variety from pop to blues and even calypso before its change of name to Cadet in the mid-60s.
Legend has it soul superstar Jackie Wilson, impressed by her precocious vocal abilities, lent Etta the money to travel to the blues capital of the world. Once there, she duetted successfully with Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows as well as finding solo fame with the likes of ‘At Last’, ‘ All I Could Do Was Cry’ and ‘Trust In Me’.
Etta’s own version of Willie Dixon’s ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ is well known to a recent generation of Diet Coke drinkers thanks to its use in a sultry TV ad, while the sumptuous ‘All I Could Do Was Cry’, released on the Argo imprint in 1960 and one of the most recent tracks on our compilation, made Number 2 R&B/Number 33 pop. Like many of the ballads in her Chess/Argo Records period, it benefited from the bluesy, sumptuous string arrangements of Riley Hampton.
Etta James upbringing had been hard – she was the illegitimate daughter of a teenage mother and a father whose identity she never knew, and was raised by a woman named Lula Rogers until the age of 11. All this turbulence and uncertainty had its effect in later life, and a period of drug addiction led to interest from the law, a spell documented in her brutally honest autobiography Rage To Survive. A stint in the Betty Ford Clinic in the late Eighties put a more hopeful full stop to the second of two decades in which James’ talents had been far from fully exploited.
Fortunately, Etta returned to prominence in the best possible way in 1994 when her album ‘Mystery Lady’, a collection of songs associated with long-time idol Billie Holiday, won her a Grammy for best jazz vocal. The album was also a thankyou to her mother Dorothy Hawkins, then approaching her seventies, who’d advised her to listen to Holiday rather than the ‘gutbucket stuff’ the young Etta preferred.
She’d receive another Grammy for lifetime achievement in 2003, the same year she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Further to that, she became one of a select few to be inducted into both the Rock’n’Roll and Blues Halls of Fame.
Sadly, the Etta James story would have a downbeat final chapter. In 2010 it was revealed that she was suffering with both dementia and leukaemia, a double whammy from which she would not recover. Her album ‘The Dreamer’ would be her last. She died on 20 January 2012 aged 73, three days after the passing of Johnny Otis, the man who discovered her over half a century earlier. Obituaries praised a ‘big-voiced, earthy blues and soul singer’, whose ‘personal dignity belied the fact that she had led a deeply troubled life.’
Etta James endured much suffering, but her legend lives on in her music. Press play and share her many emotions…