Etta James lived a hard life. She was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles. Her mother Dorothy was 14. Jamesetta never knew her father, although she always believed he was the white pool player Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone. Wanderone would not confirm or deny this, but sent her a photograph that looked, she said, exactly like her eldest son.
Dorothy was frequently absent, and Jamesetta was largely brought up by adoptive parents. She began singing in St. Paul Baptist church in Los Angeles at the age of five. She cited choirmaster Professor James Earl Hines’s role in training her voice. He was her first model as a singer. Hines’s tenor, she wrote later, “was a miracle of flexibility… you never knew what he would throw at you. Vocal variety—that’s what I learned at the tender age of five—vocal fire.”
She later said the key lesson she learned from Hines was “Sing like your life depends on it. Well, turns out mine did.”
She became recognised as an exceptional singer. Her adoptive father hoped to gain from this. Playing poker with his friends he would sometimes wake Jamesetta to sing to them. He insisted she sing all the solos in the choir, until the church told him to take her elsewhere. She was unhappy at this disruption, and attributed her dislike of singing on demand to these experiences. She became determined to sing only what and when she wanted. She later refused to sing in a school glee club.
And this is from my March 2006 review of her then-new album All The Way:
Etta James is living history. "At Last" remains a standard that never goes out of style. "The Wallflower (Dance With Me Henry)" also never seems to go out of fashion. The latter song, which many may know from the original Back to the Future film, was written by James as a response to "Work With Me, Annie" by Hank Ballard. With well over twenty rhythm & blues charting singles, James' body of work may be less well known to some fans of White pop, but her accomplishments are legendary and she ranks with the likes of Aretha Franklin when it comes to success on the R&B charts.
And in more recent times? James has been on a winning streak lately. 2003 brought a Lifetime Grammy award, while 2004's Blues to the Bone album won a Grammy for best blues album. Name a musical honor and, chances are, James holds it for her outstanding recording work that spans five decades. Now, on the verge of seventy (January 2007), James has released her latest album.
I still say All The Way was a great album (my opinion was in the minority in real time, she got a lot of bad reviews for that album). And that's really all I have on Etta. I'm sick of death and dying. Etta will be missed but my goal forthis month is no death and dying posts. Congressional hearings kick off next week and we'll get enough of it in those.
Closing with C.I.'s "Iraq snapshot:"