Few female R&B stars, enjoyed the kind of consistent acclaim Etta James received, throughout a career that spanned six decades; the celebrated producer Jerry Wexler once called her "the greatest of all modern blues singers," and she recorded a number of enduring hits, including 'At Last', 'Tell Mama', 'I'd Rather Go Blind', and 'All I Could Do Was Cry'. At the same time, despite possessing one of the most powerful voices in music, James only belatedly gained the attention of the mainstream audience, appearing rarely on the pop charts, despite scoring 30 R&B hits and she lived a rough-and-tumble life that could have inspired a dozen soap operas; battling drug addiction and bad relationships, whilst outrunning a variety of health and legal problems.
Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, California on January 25, 1938; her mother was just 14 years old at the time, and she never knew her father, though she would later say she had reason to believe he was the well-known pool hustler Minnesota Fats. James was raised by friends and relatives, instead of her mother through most of her childhood and it was whilst she was living with her grandparents, that she began regularly attending a Baptist church. James' voice made her a natural for the choir and despite her young age, she became a soloist with the group and appeared with them on local radio broadcasts. At the age of 12, after the death of her foster mother, James found herself living with her mother in San Francisco and with little adult supervision, she began to slide into juvenile delinquency.
But James' love of music was also growing stronger and with a pair of friends, she formed a singing group called the Creolettes. The girls attracted the attention of famed bandleader Johnny Otis, and when he heard their song 'Roll with Me Henry' - a racy answer song to Hank Ballard's infamous 'Work with Me Annie', he arranged for them to sign with Modern Records. The Creolettes cut the tune under the name the Peaches (the new handle coming from Etta's longtime nickname). 'Roll with Me Henry' renamed 'The Wallflower', became a hit in 1955, though Georgia Gibbs would score a bigger success with her cover version, much to Etta's dismay. After charting with a second R&B hit, 'Good Rockin' Daddy', the Peaches broke up and James stepped out on her own.
James' solo career was a slow starter and she spent several years cutting low-selling singles for Modern and touring small clubs, until 1960, when Leonard Chess signed her to a new record deal. James would record for Chess Records and its subsidiary labels Argo and Checker, into the late '70s and working with producers Ralph Bass and Harvey Fuqua, she embraced a style that fused the passion of R&B, with the polish of jazz and scored a number of hits for the label, including 'All I Could Do Was Cry', 'My Dearest Darling' and 'Trust in Me'. While James was enjoying a career resurgence, her personal life was not faring as well; she began experimenting with drugs as a teenager and by the time she was 21 was a heroin addict. As the '60s wore on, she found it increasingly difficult to balance her habit with her career, especially as she clashed with her producers at Chess, fought to be paid her royalties and dealt with a number of abusive romantic relationships. James' career went into a slump in the mid-'60s, but in 1967 she began recording with producer Rick Hall at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and, adopting a tougher, grittier style, she bounced back onto the R&B charts with the tunes 'Tell Mama' and 'I'd Rather Go Blind'.
In the early '70s, James had fallen off the charts again, her addiction was raging and she turned to petty crime to support her habit. She entered rehab on a court order in 1973, the same year she recorded a rock-oriented album, Only A Fool (also known as simply Etta James), with producer Gabriel Mekler. Through most of the '70s, a sober James, got by touring small clubs and playing occasional blues festivals and she recorded for Chess with limited success, despite the high quality of her work. In 1978, longtime fans The Rolling Stones paid homage to James, by inviting her to open some shows for them on tour and she signed with Warner Bros., cutting the album Deep in the Night with producer Jerry Wexler.
While the album didn't sell well, it received enthusiastic reviews and reminded serious blues and R&B fans that James was still a force to be reckoned with. By her own account, James fell back into drug addiction, after becoming involved with a man with a habit and she went back to playing club dates, when and where she could, until she kicked again thanks to a stay at the Betty Ford Center in 1988. That same year, James signed with Island Records and cut a powerful comeback album, Seven Year Itch, produced by Barry Beckett of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. The album sold respectably and James was determined to keep her career on track, playing frequent live shows and recording regularly, issuing Stickin' to My Guns in 1990 and The Right Time in 1992.
In 1994, a year after she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, James signed to the Private Music label, and recorded Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday, a tribute to the great vocalist she had long cited as a key influence; the album earned Etta her first Grammy Award. The relationship with Private Music proved simpatico, and between 1995 and 2003 James cut eight albums for the label, while also maintaining a busy touring schedule. In 2003, James published an autobiography, Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story, and in 2008 she was played onscreen by modern R&B diva Beyoncé Knowles in Cadillac Records, a film loosely based on the history of Chess Records. Knowles recorded a faithful cover of "At Last" for the film's soundtrack and later performed the song at Barack Obama's 2009 inaugural ball; several days later, James made headlines when during a concert she said "I can't stand Beyoncé, she had no business up there singing my song that I've been singing forever." (Later the same week, James told The New York Times that the statement was meant to be a joke - "I didn't really mean anything...even as a little child, I've always had that comedian kind of attitude", but she was saddened that she hadn't been invited to perform the song.)
In 2010, James was hospitalized with MRSA-related infections, and it was revealed that she had received treatment for dependence on painkillers and was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, which her son claimed, was the likely cause of her outbursts regarding Knowles. James released The Dreamer, for Verve Forecast in 2011. She claimed it was her final album of new material. Etta James was diagnosed with terminal leukemia later that year, and died on January 20, 2012 in Riverside, California at the age of 73.
After spending a few years in limbo after scoring her first R&B hits "Dance With Me, Henry" and "Good Rocking Daddy," Etta James returned to the spotlight in 1961 with her first Chess release, At Last. James made both the R&B and pop charts with the album's title cut, "All I Could Do Was Cry," and "Trust in Me." What makes At Last a great album is not only the solid hits it contains, but also the strong variety of material throughout. James expertly handles jazz standards like "Stormy Weather" and "A Sunday Kind of Love," as well as Willie Dixon's blues classic "I Just Want to Make Love to You." James demonstrates her keen facility on the title track in particular, as she easily moves from powerful blues shouting to more subtle, airy phrasing; her Ruth Brown-inspired, bad-girl growl only adds to the intensity. James would go on to even greater success with later hits like "Tell Mama," but on At Last one hears the singer at her peak in a swinging and varied program of blues, R&B, and jazz standards.
Words: Stephen Cook.
Simply one of the greatest live blues albums ever captured on tape. Cut in 1963 at the New Era Club in Nashville, the set finds Etta James in stellar shape as she forcefully delivers her own "Something's Got a Hold on Me" and "Seven Day Fool" interspersed with a diet of sizzling covers ("What'd I Say," "Sweet Little Angel," "Money," "Ooh Poo Pah Doo"). The CD incarnation adds three more great titles, including an impassioned reprise of her "All I Could Do Was Cry." Guitarist David T. Walker is outstanding whenever he solos.
Words: Bill Dahl
As the title suggests, this is the definitive edition of Etta James' Tell Mama long-player. For this single-disc release the original album is augmented with five previously unissued tracks -- documented during James' four Muscle Shoals sessions circa '67-'68. The question of why a rural Alabama town became a conduit for some of the most memorable and instantly identifiable grooves may still be up for debate. The evidence exists in droves and Tell Mama could certainly be considered exhibit A. These sessions feature the same impact that would redirect several first ladies of soul. Notable among them are Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis, Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) and to somewhat lesser acclaim, Jackie DeShannon's Jackie.
Etta James's second album isn't what you pull off the shelf when you want to hear her belt some soul. Like her debut, it found Chess presenting her as more or less a pop singer, using orchestration arranged and conducted by Riley Hampton, and mostly tackling popular standards of the '40s. If you're not a purist, this approach won't bother you in the least; James sings with gusto, proving that she could more than hold her own in this idiom as well. R&B isn't entirely neglected either, with the rousing "Seven Day Fool" (co-written by Berry Gordy, Jr.) a standout; "Don't Cry Baby" and "Fool That I Am" were R&B hits that made a mild impression on the pop charts as well.
Words: Richie Unterberger
There are some very strong cuts here, like a rousing "Sookie Sookie" and "Out on the Street Again," with its slightly sinister funk groove. "Feeling Uneasy," in fact, counts as one of the unsung highlights of her career, with a wrenching, near-wordless scat-moan vocal over a suitably languorous, melancholy blues-jazz arrangement. The CD reissue adds a couple of interesting bonus tracks: the 1975 single "Lovin' Arms," a good rootsy ballad, and a single edit of one of the tracks from the album, "Out on the Street Again."
For those wishing to finally sample Etta's classic period at Chess without opening the wallet for box set expense, this single-disc retrospective will fill the bill quite nicely. Featuring 20 of the tracks that appear on the double-disc Essential anthology without anything literally essential left off, this scintillating little disc now officially becomes the one-stop, first-time purchase in connecting with the emotional greatness inherent in Etta's siren song. There's plenty more after this to discover, but this is absolutely where you start.
Dating from 1990, This great album is one of the best of her later releases, especially so if you like the Etta on the blue side. The outstanding songs include, 'The Blues Don't Care' and 'You're Real Good Thing (Is About To End)'. Perhaps best of all is her cover of Tony Joe White's 'Out of the Rain' that was featured in the movie "Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned."
James has long been a masterful blues balladeer -- a talent spotlighted throughout the course of this 14-song collection. Some tracks are cushioned by string-enriched arrangements, others -- notably 1965's passionate "Only Time Will Tell" -- are melodic Chicago soul. Four tracks are previously unreleased, including her reading of Billie Holiday's "Lover Man."
Just before this album came out Etta James announced that this would be her final album; she was retiring from music in order to deal with her serious medical issues. Co-produced by Etta James, Josh Sklair, and her sons Danto and Sametto, The Dreamer's 11 tracks is a worthy musical epitaph to her career, throughout which she always insisted that that "every song is a blues." It's not her best album, but it is very definitely one worth owning to hear just how a great singer never loses it. Etta James died shortly after its release.
Recorded live at Marla's Memory Lane Supper Club in Los Angeles, this 1986 date finds Etta James in front of a superb combo fronted by Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, with Red Holloway, Jack McDuff, and Shuggie Otis providing the supple and swinging backdrop. Vinson is featured on "Kidney Stew," "When My Baby Left Me," and "Railroad Porter Blues" before the turning the stage over to Etta, who provides a blistering "Something's Got a Hold on Me" and a sultry three-song medley of "At Last," "Trust Me," and "Sunday Kind of Love." The two stars duet on Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love" before Etta closes the show with strong readings of "Lover Man" and "Misty." The small crowd's enthusiastic response makes this a show you wish you were there for; this disc is the next best thing to it.