Etta James -- The Death of a Diva

5 years ago

Etta James died on January 20th. She would have turned 74 in five days.

If you didn't know Etta, stay here a bit and listen up. Etta did it, lived it, suffered through it, laughed about it, and sang about it for all of us.

Etta was born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938 and had a life none of us would envy. Her mother was 14. Her father was rumored to be "Minnesota Fats", the legendary pool player. She was raised by a variety of people, passed around from abuse to abuse until her mother took her at age 12 to San Francisco. By 14 she formed a do-wop group, and by 16 had her first recording, "Dance With Me Henry" and was dating B.B. King. Life moved fast - she knocked off hit after hit through the 60's, 70's and into the 80's. She also developed a heroin addiction, was checked in and out of rehab, and fought huge legal battles. Finally, in the late 80's she was clean and on her way into a comeback that would last until her death.

File Photo: ETTA JAMES, the powerhouse jazz, blues and soul singer known for hits such as 'Something's Got A Hold on Me' and 'At Last,' has died from complications from leukemia. The multi-Grammy winning Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee was 73. PICTURED: 1993. ETTA JAMES performs in Nice, France..(Credit Image: © Gerard Rouy/DAPR/

Versions of her singing "At Last", one of her signature tunes, can be found all over the net.

She sang from some woman's place deeper than her heart. From easy do-wop to hard ass blues, cool crooning jazz, ripping rock and soul-stirring R & B -- her voice rumbled and crooned through all of it.

Here she is singing the blues in 1964. She is 26. When she says "Your momma cooked a chicken/She thought it was a duck/She put it out on the table/With it's legs cocked up/I love you baby!" you get the message. You know darned well that earthy Etta, when she says "You got me doing what you want me to, honey what you want me to do?", isn't talking about doing the laundry.

Etta sadly wails "Sugar On The Floor", the song of a woman so beaten by life that she is having trouble letting herself accept love with confidence. Listen to this and hear the sound of a song sung from the ragged edges of a soul that knows loss.

Etta sings "I Would Rather Go Blind" (than to see you walk away from me...). She cried the words as much as sang them, accusing her lover and claiming her pain at the same time.

The song, "Sunday Kind of Love" is one of my favorite Etta songs. She takes a drifting Louis Prima tune from the 40's and records it in the late 60's giving every phrase a different emotional tone, and as the song progresses, so does the intensity of her need. The woman could color a tune emotionally "from git to gone".

Then in 2011, after Etta had been diagnosed with Alzheimers, and had become ill with Leukemia, the album "Dreamer" was released, which contains previously unreleased tracks. The song "Cigarettes and Coffee" has a whole new tone of amazement and satisfaction we can only hope was her truth in life when she says,
"It's so early, so early in the morning
So early, so early in the morning
And I've got you
And you've got me
And we'll have each other
And we don't, we don't want nothing but joy, y'all
Nothing but joy...."

I saw Etta perform at Lincoln Center in the 90's. She was physically very heavy at the time, with dyed blond hair and a large ponytail down her back. She'd sing and sweat, and stomp around the stage during her more rough and tumble numbers. But I swear there wasn't a man in that audience who wasn't having equally swinging fantasies about her. She just exuded life, sexuality, vitality, and an almost defiant joy. When she sang a ballad, you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium. There was something about her that made us want to hear every word, to drink in every syllable, to get intoxicated on just being in the same space with her. Hearing her sing was a joyride, a journey, an adventure. We were not just listening to her sing -- we were watching and hearing her live out loud -- heart wide open. And every song swung our own hearts' doors more fully open.

May 27, 2007 - Aptos, CA, USA - Headliner ETTA JAMES performs live at the 15th Annual Santa Cruz Blues Festival in Aptos Village Park. (Credit Image: © Jerome Brunet/ZUMA Press)

Etta, Etta, sing on in the heavens! Make the clouds rock and the stars roll! Hurl up the blues in a thunderbolt and convince the sun to shine anyway. We're going to miss you, beloved Diva.

Thank you, Etta. Thank you.







~~ Contributing Editor, Mata H. also blogs right along at Time's Fool

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