Etta James “Matriarch of the Blues”, to quote her album from 2000, passed away on 28 January, aged 73. Born in LA in 1938 to a 14 year-old mother and an unknown white father, Etta was a neglected and abused child who by the time she was a teenager was struggling with violence and substance abuse. Abusive relationships, drug abuse and criminality dogged her life for its early decades, as she rose to stardom and established a reputation as a formidable performer.
By the time she was 15, in the mid-50s, Etta was recording hit records and was marketed as a an R&B and doo wop singer. She signed for Chess records 1960, becoming a traditional pop-style singer, covering jazz and pop music standards on her debut album, At Last! Although her career started to suffer around 1965, after 1967 she became an in-demand concert performer, albeit not reaching the heights of her earlier successes. She enjoyed something of a revival after 1987 and her music began to incorporate more soul and jazz elements. Over the years her contralto voice deepened and coarsened, enabling her blues singing to become raw and powerful. In the early 1990s, James began receiving major industry awards, being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001, and the Grammy Hall of Fame in both 1999 and 2008. Rolling Stone ranked her 22nd on its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and 62nd on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists. She also won six Grammy Awards.
In 2000 she released the blues album Matriarch of the Blues, Rolling Stone magazine hailing it as a “solid return to roots”, where Etta was “reclaiming her throne”. She released her final, critically acclaimed album, The Dreamer in 2011.
Etta James was given the worst of starts in life and in consequence suffered from bad relationships, drug abuse and discrimination from both the music industry and society. The fact that she became a successful singer, recording powerful and critically acclaimed material until last year, speaks of her courage and intense determination. You can hear the pain and raw emotion of her life and, at times, the rage at injustice, in her legacy of recordings. These included many songs that have stood the test of time – I’d Rather Go Blind, If I Can’t Have You, At Last, All I Could Do Was Cry, Trust in Me to name but a few.
The title song from her recent album The Dreamer, captures the heartache of Etta’s life – “like a fool I thought that it could be, Dream on, dream on, So that someone will understand me”.
For much of her life it seems that there was no one to really understand Etta James – there were too many people who were just there to exploit or abuse. Etta sang the Otis Reading song, Try a Little Tenderness, on Matriarch of the Blues – “But when she gets weary, you try a little tenderness”. Too bad there were too few along the way to do that for Etta.
Interestingly, Matriarch of the Blues also has Etta singing Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody – “it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody”. Perhaps not so unusual, considering that Etta recorded many gospel songs throughout her career, including the spiritual I’ll Fly Away – poignant to consider in the light of her recent passing – “just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away; To a land where joy shall never end, I’ll fly away”.
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