Obituary: Etta James
- 20 January 2012
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Etta James, who has died at the age of of 73, had a rich, contralto voice that breathed life into a host of musical genres, from blues to jazz, R&B to soul.
Many top performers cited her as a huge influence on their careers, but she had to wait 40 years before winning major recognition from the music industry.
She began singing in the 1950s, battled substance abuse for the best part of a decade, then bounced back to win a string of awards and bring her music to a new audience.
Jamesetta Hawkins was born in Los Angeles on 25 Jan 1938, the illegitimate daughter of a 14-year-old African-American girl and a white father whom James never met.
In her autobiography, James says she was convinced that her father was Minnesota Fats, the famous pool hustler but, "I didn't have the courage, or means, to confront him".
Like many black artists of the time she began singing gospel in a church choir in Los Angeles before she went to live with relatives in San Francisco.
She got together with two other girls to form a group which was auditioned by the late legendary bandleader and impresario, Johnny Otis.
"I was just a little schoolkid," she said in 1974, "and I was bumming around at being a delinquent.
"[Johnny] asked me to audition for him and, I will always remember, I was so bashful that I had to go into the bathroom and sing from there."
Immediately spotting her potential, Otis rearranged her first name and transformed her vocal group into The Peaches.
Their first record, Roll With Me Henry, topped the R&B charts in 1955 - although some radio stations objected to the suggestive title.
The Peaches disappeared from the scene and James set out on a solo career, scoring some minor hits and experimenting with various musical styles including rock 'n' roll.
In 1960 she signed to the legendary Chess Records where the boss, Leonard Chess, decided James would find success as a ballad singer.
In 1961 she released the album, At Last, which featured a string of her previous R&B hits.
The title track, a cover of a 1941 number first performed by Glen Miller, was to become her signature tune, much played at weddings because of the sweet orchestral arrangement.
In all, she achieved no fewer than 10 chart hits between 1961 and 1963.
Despite her success with ballads, James did not neglect the rougher edge of her voice, recording the blues standard, Call My Name, in 1966.
In 1967 she moved to Fame Studios in Alabama where she wrote and recorded one of her most beautiful, and best-known songs, I'd Rather Go Blind.
Despite her success, she found it difficult to break out of the black music market and it was a British blues band, Chicken Shack - fronted by Christine Perfect - later McVie, who took the song into the UK charts in 1969.
The 1970s saw her career begin to falter under the pressure of her heroin addiction and the consequent legal problems.
She spent months either in rehab, or in jail where she was sent for various offences, including failed payments and driving stolen cars.
"I was hooked for fifteen years," she later recalled. "I resorted to it when money got really short and things got really tough. I used to get sick all the time, miss gigs, turn out bad shows and generally got on the wrong track."
In 1974 she was sentenced to a drug treatment programme, in lieu of jail, and spent 17 months in a psychiatric hospital. It marked a turning point.
"It took a good-hearted judge to make me stop and examine myself," she wrote in her autobiography.
However, when she finished her rehab she became involved with a former drug user and went back onto heroin. She recalled the next few years as the lowest part of her life, struggling to get gigs to pay the rent.
It wasn't until 1988, after treatment at the Betty Ford Clinic, that she finally beat her addiction and released Seven Year Itch, an album that was a showcase for a new, more raunchy style of singing.
In 1994 the music industry awarded her her first Grammy for a collection of Billie Holliday songs, Mystery Lady.Her warts and all autobiography, A Rage to Survive, was published in 1998.
2001's Matriarch of the Blues, was critically acclaimed, with Rolling Stone magazine's reviewer saying that she had reclaimed her throne, and daring anyone to knock her off it.
And still the awards came. A Grammy Lifetime Achievement award in 2003, was followed by another Grammy in 2004 for the album, Let's Roll and yet another in 2005, for Blues to the Bone.
But while she had beaten the drugs, her later career was dominated by struggles with her weight which, at one time, had reached around 27 stone. For several years she could only appear on stage in a wheelchair.
Eventually she underwent a gastric bypass procedure and lost nearly 14 stone.
In 2009 she famously clashed with the singer, Beyoncé, who performed James's most famous song, At Last, during the ball to celebrate Barack Obama's inauguration as US President.
"She has no business up there, singing up there on a big ol' president day, gonna be singing my song that I've been singing forever," said James.
As she aged her voice gained a rougher edge but she never lost the power to astound her adoring audiences.
"I'm so happy I am alive," she said in a 2003 interview. "I've gone through so much in my life, I should have been dead a long time ago. I am the happiest I have been."