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Remembering Blues Legend Etta James

  • Doug Levine

Etta James performs during the 2006 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Saturday, April 29, 2006.

Etta James performs during the 2006 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Saturday, April 29, 2006.

Legendary blues singer Etta James, whose influence spread to generations of pop, rock and rhythm-and-blues performers, died Friday, Jan. 20, in California from complications from leukemia. She was 73 years old. The award-winning singer was best known for her moving rendition of the blues standard, “At Last.”

When Etta James sang Mack Gordon and Harry Warren’s “At Last,” the dozens of other versions by everyone from Nat “King” Cole to Beyonce seemed to pale in comparison. It was Etta’s signature song that launched her acclaimed career that spanned more than 50 years.

Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, California. She began formal music lessons at age five and sang solos in a choir at her Baptist church. Following a stint as a gospel singer on a local radio broadcast, she formed an all-girl vocal trio called The Creolettes. She was only 16 when the group, under the direction of producer Johnny Otis, changed its name to The Peaches and signed with Modern Records. Their first hit was Etta’s own composition, “The Wallflower (Roll With Me, Henry).”

“The Wallflower (Roll With Me, Henry)” was a Number One hit on the Rhythm and Blues charts in 1955. Soon after, Etta James and her group The Peaches parted ways, allowing her solo career to flourish.

Etta signed with Chess Records in 1960 and began recording for its subsidiary labels Argo and Cadet. Her debut album, “At Last”, yielded six Top 20 R&B singles, all of which crossed over onto the pop chart.

She continued her streak of hit singles and albums throughout the 1960s. By 1968, when she released her best-selling pop tune, “Tell Mama,” her repertoire grew to include soul, rock, jazz, duets and string orchestrations.

Etta’s struggle with drug addiction began in the 1960s. She was in and out of a psychiatric hospital for years but remained committed to her singing career. She conquered her drug problem at age 50, after seeking treatment at a substance abuse center.

Etta James won multiple Grammy Awards, including Best Traditional Blues Album, “Blues To The Bone” in 2004. She earned a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, and her hit songs “At Last” and “The Wallflower (Roll With Me, Henry)” were both inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. She was also the winner of more than 15 Blues Music Awards.

Other accolades included her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame, and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Rolling Stone magazine named her one of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.