Monday, February 13, 2012

Etta James, Singing the Songs People Need to Hear

"I sing the songs that people need to hear..."    
Etta James

Etta James was a singer whose style spanned a variety of music genres including blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul, gospel and jazz. Starting her career in the mid-1950s, she gained fame with hits such as "Dance With Me, Henry", "At Last", "Tell Mama", and "I'd Rather Go Blind" for which she wrote the lyrics. James made a musical resurgence in the late 1980s with the album The Seven Year Itch.  James released her latest studio album, The Dreamer, in November 2011.  

“You can't fake this music. You might be a great singer or a great musician but, in the need, that's got nothing to do with it. It's how you connect to the songs and to the history behind them.”

James is regarded as having bridged the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll, and is the winner of six Grammys and 17 Blues Music Awards. She was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001, and the Grammy Hall of Fame in both 1999 and 2008.  Rolling Stone ranked James number 22 on their list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and number 62 on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists.

Born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles. As a child, Etta was a gospel prodigy, singing in her church choir and on the radio at the age of 5. When she turned 12, she moved north to San Francisco where she formed a trio and was soon working for bandleader Johnny Otis.

"My mother always told me, even if a song has been done a thousand times, you can still bring something of your own to it. I'd like to think I did that."  

In 1954, she moved to Los Angeles to record "The Wallflower" (a tamer title for the then-risqué "Roll with Me Henry") with the Otis band. It was that year that the young singer became Etta James (an shortened version of her first name) and her vocal group was dubbed The Peaches (also Etta's nickname). Soon after, James launched her solo career with such hits as "Good Rockin' Daddy" in 1955.

After signing with Chicago's Chess Records in 1960, James' career began to soar. Chart toppers included duets with then-boyfriend Harvey Fuqua, the heart-breaking ballad "All I Could Do Was Cry," "At Last" and "Trust in Me." But James' talents weren't reserved for powerful ballads. She knew how to rock a house, and did so with such gospel-charged tunes as "Something's Got a Hold On Me" in 1962 and "In The Basement" in 1966. James continued to work with Chess throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.  In 1967, James recorded with the Muscle Shoals house band in the Fame studios, and the collaboration resulted in the triumphant Tell Mama album.

James' work gained positive attention from critics as well as fans, and her 1973 album Etta James earned a Grammy nomination, in part for its creative combination of rock and funk sounds. After completing her contract with Chess in 1977, James signed on with Warner Brothers Records. A renewed public profile followed her appearance at the opening ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Subsequent albums, including Deep In The Night and Seven Year Itch, received high critical acclaim. She was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1993, prior to her signing a new recording contract with Private Records.
Later Career

With suggestive stage antics and a sassy attitude, James continued to perform and record well into the 1990s. Always soulful, her extraordinary voice was showcased to great effect on her recent private releases, including Blue Gardenia, which rose to the top of the Billboard jazz chart. In 2003, James underwent gastric bypass surgery and lost over 200 pounds. The dramatic weight loss had an impact on her voice, as she told Ebony magazine that year. "I can sing lower, higher and louder," James explained.

That same year, Etta James released Let's Roll, which won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Her sons, Donto and Sametto James, served as producers on the recording, along with Josh Sklair. This team regrouped for her next effort,Blues to the Bone (2004), which brought James her third Grammy Award—this time in the Best Traditional Blues Album category. In 2006, James released the album All the Way, which featured cover versions of songs by Prince, Marvin Gaye and James Brown. She participated in a tribute album the following year for jazz great Ella Fitzgerald, called We Love Ella.

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