0 Tell Mama - The sassy soul of Ms.Etta James

CityFM89 continues to honor fabulous female artists who have left us in recent times with the second edition of the three past Face the Music special. Today we pay tribute to the sassy and soulful Etta James. Click here for the audio link:

Born in 1938 to an unwed teenager of 14, Jamesetta Hawkins started life with nothing. Initially raised by her aunt and uncle, and then by her often absentee teenage mother’s landlady, the young Jamesetta had very little in the way of family life. She didn’t know who her father was and her mother was simply too young and too caught up in being young and beautiful to take care of a child.

Jamesetta found a home in the church and in gospel music, with Professor James Earle Hines, the musical director of the Echoes of Eden Choir at Saint Paul’s Baptist Church in Los Angeles teaching her to sing. Jamesetta would sing in church, later describing herself as a little chubby little child, with a ‘high-yellow complexion and light-colored Shirley Temple curls cascading down below her waist’, and when people flocked to the church to hear the girlchild in the St. Paul Baptist who could sing like a full-grown woman, with grown-up feelings and strength, the church pastor would ask “Have you ever heard a child sing like this? Is she blessed? Is God a miracle worker?” Many years later, Etta James would recall:

'Vocal variety—that’s what I learned at the tender age of five—vocal fire. Sing like your life depends on it. Well, turns out mine did.”

In 1950 when Etta James’ primary caregiver died, her mother, Dorothy, took her to San Francisco, where the young gospel singer would get her first break. Johnny Otis, the son of greek immigrants who grew up to be known as the godfather of r&b, had decided as a child that each person could either be black or white, he’d be black. He was a composer, band leader and talent scout ‘discovered’ Jamesetta whom he renamed Etta James when she was just 14, and singing with a girl group called The Creollettes, whom he renamed The Peaches. Its not certain how he came across her – his version is that she simply came up to his hotel room demanding she be auditioned, but others claim he saw The Peaches singing in a nightclub and wanted to record their song Roll With me Henry, a musical response to Hank Ballard’s Work With me Annie. Ballard himself is now considered one of the proto-rock n’ roll musicians, and went on to write and record The Twist, later made popular by Chubby Checker. He even invented the dance. Clearly, The Peaches were on to something, and their response to Ballard’s song took them to the top of what was then known as the ‘race’ charts, eventually leading Etta to tour with Little Richards.

Etta’s Incredible vocal power is clear even in her early records – at the age of 17, she didn’t sound like a teenager. She sure didn’t sound like an innocent. Even when black artists began to have crossover hits, Etta James was still only making ‘race’ records, with her striking soulful renditions considered too ‘black’ to have crossover pop potential. Etta had to grow up fast.

In 1960 Etta James signed on with Argo records, a subsidiary of Chicago’s Chess Records, where she started off recording duets but soon moved to releasing her first major album, At Last which to this day, is noted for its incredibly variety of genres. Etta sang the blues just as well as she did do wop, r&b and jazz standards. Producers Phil and Leonard Chess believed that Etta had pop potential, and so backed many songs with orchestral string arrangements. The album gave Etta 4 singles in the pop and r&b charts in 1961, as well as her signature song At Last. Finally, Etta had found her groove and it was wide, it was deep and it was never far from the gospel in her soul.

The blues were to follow Etta in every way. Her stardom was brief, leading her fast into a downward spiral of alcohol and drug abuse. She spent much of the 60s in and out of jail, rehab and psychiatric institutions, never quite getting out of the funk she had found herself in. In 1967, she began recording again at Alabama’s legendary Fame studios in Muscle Shoals. She had a comeback hit with a song that reached number 10 in the r&b charts, and an album that kept her popular as a performer.

Etta wasn’t able to completely save herself even after Tell Mama. In the 70s she ended up back at Chess Records, working as a promoter for other singers, where Leonard Chess paid her weekly for her work + 50 dollars for her methadone. She’d occasionally get a gig somewhere, sing as best she could and go straight back to the drugs after. In 1978 she opened for The Rolling Stones, later talking about how it broke her, having been singing for as long as she had, to be just opening for a bunch of young men, from whom Mick Jagger told her how he had aped her wildness and her style having seen her when he was just 15. It wasn’t till she was in her 50’s that Etta James began to receive awards for her work, being inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and winning a Grammy for her Billie Holiday tribute album.

Her primordial rawness, her rough delivery and non negotiable eroticism never changed, no matter what the blues that trapped Etta were. She still performed till just a couple of year’s before her death, with her last performance being of her signature song At Last, on the TV show Dancing with the Stars, in 2009. But all her accolades had come just a little too late to give her hope. Leukemia and dementia took over Etta’s world, breaking it down further than any previous drug abuse had. She died on January 20th, this year just a few days after the man who discovered her, Johnny Otis died. While Etta may once have been the most overlooked of all the American Blues singers, she was then, and is now, one of the greatest influences on vocalists today.

Written and voiced by Mahvesh Murad
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