Suffice it to say, the world lost one of its great voices when Etta James died last week, only a few days prior to her 74th birthday. Born Etta Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938, she became one of the most influential female performers of all time, a daring diva who was able to transcend R&B, soul, rock, gospel, and jazz and make her mark on each of those genres.
While recording for the fledgling Chess Records label, she helped
elevate that company's stature beyond blues realms, recording several
indelible hits that would be covered repeatedly in the decades to come
-- among them "At Last," "I'd Rather Go Blind," and "Tell Mama" -- songs
that became standards in any number of settings.
Despite being recognized with an astounding six Grammys and 17 Blues Music Awards -- not to mention her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, and twice into the Grammy Hall of Fame -- hers was a troubling tale that involved drugs, depression, and struggles with weight issues, all of which were documented in the film Cadillac Records, which found her adroitly portrayed by Beyoncé.
James attracted notice early on with several bawdy recordings, including "Roll With Me Henry," a decidedly controversial choice when considering the fact that she was only 17 in 1955, when it took the R&B charts by storm. Yet, it was her 1961 hit "At Last," a searing ballad about that the bliss of finding long-sought love, that forever etched her in the pop ethos.
She followed that up seven years later with an equally emphatic read of "I'd Rather Go Blind," a song that describes the unimaginable pain of watching romance flounder. In the process, she helped redefine the role of women in modern musical realms, assuming a tough, tenacious stance that was completely out of character with the softer sentiments conveyed by most female singers up until that time.
Unfortunately, James' career was stalled in the '70s due to an unfortunate combination of legal problems and her addiction to heroin and painkillers. She went in and out of rehab to no avail and was later imprisoned for a series of serious missteps, including cashing bad checks, forgery, and trafficking in cocaine.
Despite spending time in prison and a 17-month stint in a psychiatric hospital, James' struggles with prescription drugs continued well into the '80s. She eventually checked into the Betty Ford Clinic, where she managed to kick her addictions and take the necessary steps to get her career back in order.
After avoiding the spotlight for more than a decade, she reemerged in the '90s with a 1993 album, The Right Time, produced by famed R&B producer Jerry Wexler, and Mystery Lady, a salute to Billie Holiday that garnered the first of her Grammys. Her 2003 release, Let's Roll, and a 2004 effort, Blues to the Bone, added to her list of accolades, helping to compensate for the fact that she had been overlooked and ignored for so many years.
Diagnosed with leukemia in 2011, James remained mostly out of sight in recent years, due to additional battles with dementia and kidney failure. Yet her influence has endured throughout the years, readily apparent in a number of artists who followed in her wake. Among them:
One of today's most heralded superstars, Beyoncé successfully channeled James in Cadillac Records and, in the process, managed to portray her talent, tenacity, and turmoil. Beyoncé herself has expressed her admiration for James, and her commanding presence and dynamic delivery make it clear that she has indeed learned her lessons well.
Ever since the '60s, the divine Ms. Ross has managed to establish herself as pop music's ultimate diva. However, aside from her superstar stature, it's Ross' own remarkable flair for high drama and edgy confrontation that bring close comparison.
Between her stint with the British blues band Chicken Shack and her rapid ascent via Fleetwood Mac, McVie recorded a powerful solo version of James' signature hit, "I'd Rather Go Blind," performing it with practically the same arrangement as the original. McVie's rich, dusky vocals -- riveting and yet vulnerable in practically the same breath -- clearly indicated she was an Etta James disciple.
Perhaps the most dazzling and dynamic female performer of the past 30 years, Turner's smoldering sensuality owes much to James' early efforts. Both proved the point that an assertive black woman was clearly capable of commanding a stage and wowing a crowd.
Bound to James in terms of both tragedy and talent, Joplin similarly struggled to assert herself while still dealing with her personal demons. Even so, her forceful, frenzied performances showed just how much she owed to James' definitive style.
Raitt's allegiance to the blues derives quite a bit from James' heartfelt and heartrending relationship to her subject matter, and indeed, the two women share a similar emotional investment that they imbue in each and every performance.
The fact that she kicked off her career at roughly the same age that James did when she recorded her first singles brings a certain similarity in itself. However, being a British teenager infatuated with American R&B brought her well into the stylistic realms initially inhabited by James. She also worshiped Betty Wright, whose hit "Clean Up Woman" borrowed the same first-person template that James perfected early on.
A great singer with a remarkable track record and even greater potential, Winehouse fell prey to the same obstacles that derailed James' career for more than a decade. The difference was that James managed to overcome her problems and subsequently reboot, while Winehouse withered under the weight of her vices and passed away prematurely.