Etta James excelled at everything from gritty R&B and barrel-house blues to supper club jazz, sweet soul and traditional pop in a career spanning from the mid-1950s into the 2010s. She put her unique stamp on every song she touched. James could be as soaringly romantic as "At Last," as achingly wounded as "I'd Rather Go Blind," or as focused and determined as "Tell Mama."
Jamesetta Hawkins was a virtuoso who started performing publicly in church at the age of five before branching out into secular music. Discovered by Johnny Otis (who passed away the day before her), James landed a few big hits before being signed to Chess Records, where she struck gold with tough R&B cuts like "I Just Want To Make Love to You" and lush pop ballads such as "A Sunday Kind of Love." James, an incendiary concert performer who could out-rock any rocker, capably made the transition from '50s R&B to '60s soul, but her addictive personality damaged both her career and her personal life for a couple of decades.
By 1988, things had brightened for James considerably and she deftly proved that her timeless voice transcended any decade or genre straitjackets, as she began racking up Grammies, lifetime achievement awards and new legions of fans. Etta James never forgot to tell people how much she owed to Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. In fitting tribute, even before James passed away in 2012, her biggest fan, Adele, always made plain she carried a torch for her, keeping Etta’s presence alive for yet another pop music generation. Etta James was the rare artist who could connect with the emotional core of a song and sweep up the listener along with her, expressing the very emotions the rest of us just can't find words for.
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