Remembering Etta James
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Tuesday, January 24th, 2012
Associated Press



"AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL"
REMEMBERING ETTA JAMES
(1938 - 2012)
by NEKESA MUMBI MOODY, AP Music Writer

In this, April 6, 1987, photo, singer Etta James performs at the Vine St. Bar & Grill in Hollywood, Calif. The singer's manager says Etta James has died in Southern California. Lupe De Leon tells The Associated Press the singer died early Friday, Jan. 20, 2012 at Riverside Community Hospital. De Leon says the cause of death is complications of leukemia. (AP PhotoAlison Wise)

NEW YORK (AP) — On her last album "The Dreamer," released just three months before her death, Etta James sings a mix of covers, from the R&B classic "Misty Blue" to the Ray Charles song "In the Evening." But perhaps the most curious tune included on the disc may be the Guns N' Roses staple "Welcome to the Jungle."


That a 73-year-old icon of R&B would tackle the frenetic rock song — albeit in a pace more fitting her blues roots — might seem odd. But the song may be the best representation of James as both a singer and a person — rambunctious in spirit, with the ability to sing whatever was thrown at her, whether it was jazz, blues, pining R&B or a song from one of the rowdiest bands in rock.


"She was able to dig so deep in kind of such a raw and unguarded place when she sang, and that's the power of gospel and blues and rhythm and blues. She brought that to all those beautiful standards and rocks songs that she did. All the number of vast albums she recorded, she covered such a wide variety of material that brought such unique phrasing and emotional depth," said Bonnie Raitt, a close friend, in an interview on Friday afternoon after James' death.


FILE - In this Sept. 22, 1974, photo, Muhammad Ali plays a few notes on the piano as singer Etta James looks on. The singer's manager says Etta James has died in Southern California. Lupe De Leon tells The Associated Press the singer died early Friday, Jan. 20, 2012 at Riverside Community Hospital. De Leon says the cause of death is complications of leukemia. (AP Photo/Horst Faas)

"I think that's what appealed to people, aside from the fact that her personality on and off the stage was so huge and irrepressible. She was ribald and raunchy and dignified, classy and strong and vulnerable all at the same time, which is what us as women really relate to."


James, whose signature song was the sweeping, jazz-tinged torch song "At Last," died in Riverside, Calif., from complications of leukemia. Her death came after she struggled with dementia and other health problems, health issues that kept her from performing for the last two or so years of her life.


It was a life full of struggles. Her mother was immersed in a criminal life and left her to be raised by friends, she never knew her true father (though she believed it was billiards great Minnesota Fats), and she had her own troubles, which included a decades-long addiction to drugs, turbulent relationships, brushes with the law, and other tribulations.


One might think all of those problems would have weighted down James' spirit, and her voice, layering it with sadness, or despair. While she certainly could channel depression, anger, and sorrow in song, her voice was defined by its fiery passion: Far from beaten down, James embodied the fight of a woman who managed to claw her way back from the brink, again and again.


Etta James arrives at the premiere of "Cadillac Records" in Los Angeles on Monday, Nov. 24, 2008. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)

It's an attitude that influenced her look as well. Despite the conservative era, she dyed her hair platinum blonde, sending out the signal that she was far from demure, and owning a brassy, sassy attitude. She relished her role as saucy singer, a persona that she celebrated in her private life as well.


"In terms of 1950s rhythm and blues stars, she had kind of a gutsy attitude and she went out there and did what she did, and she was kind of bold ... and it had a huge influence," said David Ritz, the co-author of her autobiography "Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story." ''I think her gutsiness and her lack of fear and just her courage (made her special). ... I believe that made her important and memorable."


Beyonce, who played James in the movie "Cadillac Records" about Chess Records, also spoke about her influence on other singers.


"I feel like Etta James, first of all, was the first black woman I saw with platinum, blonde hair. She wore her leopard and she wore her sexy silhouette and she didn't care. She was strong and confident and always Etta James," said Beyonce in a 2008 interview.


Legendary singer Etta James points to her star after an unveiling ceremony on the Walk of Fame Friday, April 18, 2003, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. James' 1960 treatment of the song "At Last" has endured in popularity over the decades. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

James could often be irascible. Ritz remembers when he was working with her on her autobiography, touring with her around the country, that one time he approached her with his tape recorder and she barked: "If see that tape recorder again I'm going to cram it up your (expletive)."


But at other times, she'd be effusive and warm and anxious to talk.


"Once she did talk, she was always candid and unguarded. She was a free spirit," Ritz said.


While Ritz put her in the category of other greats like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye, she never enjoyed their mainstream success. Though "At Last" has become an enduring classic, there were times when James had to scrounge for work, and while she won Grammys and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she did not have the riches, the multitude of platinum records or the hits that some of her peers enjoyed.


"She at least enjoyed a great resurgence like John Lee Hooker did and B.B. King, (and) has had some great decades of appreciation from new generations around the world," said Raitt. "There's no one like her. No one will ever replace Etta."


FILE - In this April 29, 2006 photo, Etta James performs during the 2006 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans. James, the feisty rhythm and blues singer whose raw, passionate vocals anchored many hits and made the yearning ballad "At Last" an enduring anthem for weddings, commercials and even President Barack Obama, died Friday, Jan. 20, 2012. She was 73. James had been suffering from dementia and kidney problems, and was battling leukemia. In December 2011, her physician announced that her leukemia was terminal. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen)

And Ritz said the lack of commercial success does nothing to diminish her greatness, or her legacy.


"Marvin certain knew it and Ray knew it ... the people who know that she was in that category," he said. "Whatever the marketplace did or didn't do or whether her lack of career management didn't do, it has nothing to do with her talent."

And on Friday, the Queen of Soul was among those who paid tribute to James greatness, calling her "one of the great soul singers of our generation. An American original!


"I loved 'Pushover,' 'At Last' and almost any and everything she recorded! When Etta SUNG, you heard it!"

___


AP Entertainment Writer Chris Talbott and AP Writer Mesfin Fekadu contributed to this report.



Written by NEKESA MUMBI MOODY, AP Music Writer
Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten , or redistributed.

Photos courtesy of AP Photo
Images created by Horst Faas, Jeff Christensen, Damian Dovarganes, Nick Ut, Alison Wise, Matt Sayles
Last changed on: 1/24/2012

YouTube Etta James sings her timeless classic, "At Last".

YouTube Etta James singing "I'd Rather Go Blind".

The MY HERO Project From the MY HERO Library: Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul

The MY HERO Project For the MY HERO story of one of Etta James' contemporaries, Ray Charles.

Wikipedia For more on the life and music of legendary soul singer, Etta James.

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