Etta James dies at 73; acclaimed blues and R&B singer

Los Angeles Times

Etta James, the earthy blues and R&B singer whose anguished vocals convinced generations of listeners that she would rather go blind than see her love leave, then communicated her joy upon finding that love at last, died Friday. She was 73.

She died at Parkview Community Hospital in Riverside, said her sons, Donto and Sametto James. The cause was complications from leukemia, according to her personal physician.

James had been in failing health for years. Court records in the singer’s probate case show she also suffered from dementia and kidney failure. Her two sons had battled their stepfather for control of her $1-million estate but in December agreed to allow him to remain as conservator.

James spent time in a detox facility for addiction to painkillers and over-the-counter medications, Donto told Reuters in 2010. And she had wrestled with complications since undergoing gastric bypass surgery in 2002 to remedy a lifelong struggle with her weight.

After that procedure, which actress Roseanne Barr had recommended to her, James lost 200 pounds. Before the surgery, her weight had gone past 400 pounds. When she performed, she often had to be escorted on and off the stage in a wheelchair. “I was constantly worried that I was going to have a heart attack,” she told Ebony magazine in 2003.

Perhaps the quintessential R&B diva, James, who was born and lived much of her life in Los Angeles, was equally at home singing unadulterated blues, searing R&B and sophisticated jazz, the latter receiving special attention in her recordings over the last decade. Her dusky voice, which could stretch from a sultry whisper to an aching roar, influenced generations of singers who came after, from Tina Turner to Bonnie Raitt to Christina Aguilera. And pop-R&B singer Beyonce carefully studied James before portraying her in the loosely historical 2008 film “Cadillac Records.”

“Etta James was one of the greatest vocalists of our time,” Beyonce said in a statement on her website. “Her musical contributions will last a lifetime. Playing Etta James taught me so much about myself, and singing her music inspired me to be a stronger artist. When she effortlessly opened her mouth, you could hear her pain and triumph. Her deeply emotional way of delivering a song told her story with no filter. She was fearless, and had guts.”

Multiple Grammy-winner Raitt said Friday: “I don’t know that there’s ever been a singer that knocked me out as much as Etta. The mark she made was setting the bar so high for the depths someone can sing from. The ache and the pain and the ferocity and the soul and the sexiness — it all came through in the space of one three-minute song.”

Despite her early commercial success, James wrestled for much of her life with her weight, addictions to drugs and alcohol and with her tumultuous relationship with her mother, who was just 14 when she gave birth to Jamesetta Hawkins on Jan. 25, 1938.

She was adored by rock’s elite, including the Rolling Stones, who drafted her as an opening act on their 1978 U.S. tour, and voters at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who inducted her in 1993.

“Etta James was a pioneer,” said Terry Stewart, president and chief executive of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Her ever-changing sound has influenced rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, pop, soul and jazz artists, marking her place as one of the most important female artists of our time. From Janis Joplin to Joss Stone, an incredible number of performers owe their debts to her. There is no mistaking the voice of Etta James, and it will live forever.”

James’ six-decade recording career began at the top of the R&B charts when her bawdy 1955 single “The Wallflower,” better known as “Roll With Me Henry,” quickly made her a national star.

In the rollicking early days of rock ‘n’ roll, James’ saucy song answered Hank Ballard’s then-recent hit “Work With Me Annie,” a ribald, thinly veiled invitation to a woman to have sex. James’ response, in which she assertively put forth the same offer on her own terms, was wildly popular but equally controversial coming from a 17-year-old girl long before the sexual revolution of the ‘60s upended traditional sex roles.

She is best known for “At Last,” the powerhouse ballad that became a hit in 1961 and which has been enshrined in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Bending and stretching the notes of the bluesy melody to reflect the hard-won realization of a lifelong desire, and channeling a sense of joy that sounded as though the gates of heaven had just opened to welcome her in, James sang: “At last, my love has come along/My lonely days are over/My life is like a song.”

The other song with which she became inextricably connected was “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which she said she co-wrote in 1968 with her friend Ellington Jordan while he was in prison. He outlined the song and James finished it, but for tax reasons she gave the co-writing credit to Medallions singer Billy Foster, to whom she was briefly married. It conveys the desperation of a woman who prefers losing her sight to seeing her man with someone else. Rolling Stone critic Dave Marsh included it in his 1999 book “The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made.” It was subsequently recorded by artists including Rod Stewart, B.B. King, Koko Taylor and Beyonce in “Cadillac Records,” but it remains most closely associated with James.

James, the child of a single teenage mother growing up in South Los Angeles during World War II, never knew her father but remained convinced throughout her life that he was pool shark Minnesota Fats.

With her blond curls and light complexion, she stood out in the African American community, and she started to make a mark singing in the choir of St. Paul Baptist Church. The church’s music minister, a prominent figure in gospel circles known as Professor James Earle Hines, quickly singled her out for solos when she was just 5 or 6, said David Ritz, who collaborated on her 1995 autobiography “Rage to Survive.”

The church was frequented by Hollywood stars such as Lana Turner and Robert Mitchum and had a weekly radio broadcast that helped spread word of the girl’s talents. James’ mother left her to be raised by foster parents, but when her foster mother died when James was about 12, she was reunited with her biological mother and they lived for a time in San Francisco.

“One of the peculiar things about Etta’s story — one that’s a twist on the idea of the reverend-preacher who doesn’t want his child to sing rhythm and blues — is that her prostitute mother, the sophisticated prostitute mother, didn’t want her to sing raunchy rhythm and blues, but wanted her to sing jazz like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan,” Ritz said.

As a teen, James formed a trio called the Peaches, which was discovered by R&B musician and promoter Johnny Otis (who, coincidentally, died Tuesday at age 90). Soon, she was in a duo called Etta & Harvey with Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows, the R&B group behind the 1955 hit “Sincerely.”

Early on, she toured with Johnny Guitar Watson, the Texas singer, songwriter and guitarist, in an association that figured prominently in her approach to music for the rest of her life.

“Her real role model was not a woman, it was Johnny Guitar Watson,” said Ritz. “Johnny also could do all three things: blues, R&B and jazz. ... Where he really influenced her was in his vocals. He would sing standards and then kind of bluesify them. Just as Nancy Wilson modeled herself on Little Jimmy Scott — a man — Etta James modeled herself on Johnny. ... He had an enormously healthy and rich influence on her.”

She also fell under the positive and negative influences of musicians she revered, such as Billie Holiday, as well as some with whom she crossed paths on the road, including Ray Charles and Chet Baker, all of whom struggled with addiction.

“All of my role models at that time, the ones I looked up to most, were heroin addicts,” she told The Times in 1993. “I think subconsciously I thought that was a cool thing.”

In the mid-1970s, after getting caught writing bad checks to support her drug habit, James was offered a choice between prison or rehab. She chose the latter and kicked heroin, but she started using cocaine a few years later. A spiritual epiphany led her to give up cocaine and alcohol, and in the 1980s she began a personal and professional renaissance, reestablishing her credibility in the music world.

She coaxed esteemed R&B producer Jerry Wexler, who had been pivotal in the careers of Aretha Franklin, Ruth Brown, Otis Redding and many others, out of retirement to oversee her 1992 album “The Right Time.”

At the time, Wexler said, “I’ve never done anything better, and I’ve done a lot of records.”

In 1994, James saluted Holiday with an album of jazz standards called “Mystery Lady,” which yielded the first Grammy Award of her career, for jazz vocal performance. She collected two more Grammys: for the 2003 contemporary blues album “Let’s Roll,” and 2004’s “Blues to the Bone,” named best traditional blues album.

Those works became family affairs when she enlisted her two sons as co-producers. The family moved to Riverside in the 1980s because James said she had had enough of gang violence and other troubles in South Los Angeles. She lived in a simple ranch-style home.

In addition to her two sons, James is survived by Artis Mills, her husband of 42 years;and several grandchildren.

Her sons were unaware of the scope of their mother’s fame until seeing her perform at the 1983 Grammys. Donto, then a young teen, was sitting next to members of rap group Run-DMC, and they went wild when James took the stage.

“That’s when I realized my mother was truly a star,” he said.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Phil Willon contributed to this report.