For the THE ECONOMIST: ETTA JAMES had a rare voice—one that could convey a lifetime of experience without showing signs of age. Sometimes dusky, with a bit of a growl, it was also confident, powerful and clear. So a song like “At Last”, her signature tune, written in 1941 and recorded by Ms James in 1960, remains timelessly resonant. It sounds deeply felt and true, and you can dance nice and slow to it.
She was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938, but her early managers figured Jamesetta would have more allure as Etta James. Though she was anointed the “Matriarch of the Blues”, her honest, expressive vocal style lent itself to various genres, such as rhythm & blues, pop and jazz, and earned her multiple Grammy awards. She opened for the Rolling Stones on several occasions, and was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.
But Ms James didn’t much care for labels. In “Rage to Survive: the Etta James Story”, an autobiography written with David Ritz, she explained that she resented being classified as a blues singer:
Sure, I can sing the blues all night long. I love the blues. I honor the form. But another part of me knows I can sing country and western just as soulfully. Not to mention hard rock. I hate restrictions. The survivor part of me, though, said take the money. And I did.
Plenty of ink has already been spilt over Ms James’s various ups and downs, professionally and personally, her battles with drug addiction, her fearlessness and unfettered persona. In a 1978 interview with NME she even aligned herself with that era’s punks and rock musicians:
“I was originally like a punker, know what I mean, like the punks are today, I’d spit in a minute. And I notice Mick [Jagger] does that same facial expression that I see, so then I sit in the dressing room and I think it’s really weird how these guys have gotten over.”
That fiery spirit reared its head in early 2009, when Ms James derided Beyoncé for her rendition of “At Last” at Barack Obama’s inauguration ball (despite applauding her version of the song on the “Dream Girls” film soundtrack). “I tell you that woman he had singing for him, singing my song—she’s going to get her ass whupped.”
For a 70-year-old woman to still have some heckling in her indicates a rather clear rage to survive, one that accompanied her until her last days at the Riverside Community Hospital in California, where she died on January 20th, aged 73. (In tribute, Beyoncé referred to Ms James on her own official website as “one of the greatest vocalists of our time. I am so fortunate to have met such a queen.”) The Reverend Al Sharpton is expected to preside over Ms James’s funeral this weekend. Others still will dance to her music, nice and slow if they are lucky.
photo by blogowitz. Photo is of Etta James Rocks the House, a 1964 live album