Today, the world begins a long goodbye with one of the most preeminent voices in soul music. Etta James has died to due to complications from leukemia at age 73.
Though Etta James’ star never rose as high as, say, that of Aretha Franklin, the blues singer was just as influential, and her b-side releases garnered a newfound interest following the 2008 release of Cadillac Records, a film that looked at the growth, power and influence of Chess Records.
Along with her Chess Records contemporaries, James helped to round out the sound of rock ‘n’ roll. In the process, her voice became a blueprint for female vocalists. Along with her deeply textured, soul-stirring vocals, James gifted the world with one of the most well-known songs celebrating love, “At Last.”
The song found new life in 2008 when Beyoncé Knowles produced and co-starred in Cadillac Records, the film about the creation — and fall — of Chess Records. In the film, Knowles brought James’ troubled life to the silver screen. Knowles also sang the bluesy ballad to President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, as they danced their first dance at an inaugural ball.
James’ blues riffs, ballads and incomparable runs should have set her up as a mainstream hit. Instead, it was a long, tough road for the singer, who in spite of only reaching success on R&B charts, still managed to create a pathway for big vocalists including modern-day hitmakers like Christina Aguilera.
James began recording music at the age of 14, as part of a 1950s, all-girl doo-wop group called the Peaches, and they released the song “The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry)” in 1955. The song climbed to No. 2 on the R&B charts in February of 1955, but never made any mainstream headway, considering it was eclipsed by a cover version of it done by white jazz artist Georgia Gibbs.
Ultimately, James got a share of royalties from the track.
James got the acclaim she was looking for in the 1960s, when she inked with Chess Records, and dominated the R&B charts with five hit tracks. Her voice lit up the charts with blues staples including, “If I Can’t Have You,” “All I Could Do Is Cry,” “My Dearest Darling,” and “At Last.”
The plan always was to cross James over to the pop charts, and mimic the success she had in R&B music, and to make the music a bit more palatable to white ears, producer Leonard Chess backed her vocals with strings. The instrumentation lighted up her saucy, gospel-inflected vocals, but the she never quite got there. Even “At Last,” which became her signature standard, only peaked at number 47 on the Billboard Pop Chart.
Her vice ultimately slowed down a career that should have stood next to contemporaries like Aretha Franklin. Her poison was heroin, an addiction that began in the mid-’60s — right as her career should have skyrocketed — and lasted until 1974. By James’ own account, she spent much of her time during that time checking in and out of the Los Angeles Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital.
James began recording again in the 1970s, and stayed with Chess Records until 1978. New recordings gave her new life, and she began traveling and touring again, even opening for the Rolling Stones in the late ‘70s, and playing at the esteemed Montreal Jazz Festival.
The end was dicey for James, and played out like the end of a movie about unreached greatness.
As recently as February, a Riverside County Superior court judge ordered a medical evaluation for the singer, after an attorney for her son said that her health was in serious danger.
The court order came on the heels of a rather nasty-back-and-forth battle between James’ husband and her sons, who have been vying for control of James’ estimated $1 million in savings.
The singer lived at home and received round-the-clock care, and was being treated for dementia and leukemia.