Graham Reid | | 2 min read
When Etta James died at age 73 in January after a protracted battle with leukemia, there a was genuine but surprising acknowledgment of her career in the media.
Not that James didn't deserve them, but the singer whose life was troubled by heroin addiction and time in rehab was an unlikely candidate for obituaries.
She didn't have that many hits, not even At Last which many hailed a big one. It wasn't on release in 61 when it barely and briefly scraped into the US top 50. But there was something more about James than just the music and the troubled life.
She was an emblem of the end of an era – just as Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis will be when their time comes.
James was of rock'n'roll's first generation in the 50s, but she wasn't locked into her era as so many others were.
Her powerful voice allowed her to carry over as blues singer, but although she moved to Chess in 1960 -- the great Chicago label of the period -- she made her name with memorable string soaked ballads (At Last, her stone cold classic I'd Rather Go Blind) alongside earthy blues (the horn-driven I Just Want to Make Love to You).
She could also convincingly sing Stormy Weather and yet dig into chipper 50s pop on Two Sides to Every Story where her raw treatment belts it out of the playground.
It was that emotional breadth which set James apart, and which provided a pathway for the likes of Janis Joplin to follow.
James was an uncompromising vocalist, she nailed those notes hard and when she went to Muscle Shoals Studios she hit the spot with classic Southern soul on material like Do Right Woman. And she proved herself as adept at dirty Seventies funk (the grunting and orgasmic You Can Keep Your Hat On) as she was with rock later in life when she steamed through the Doors' Light My Fire and on Spoonful reminded that it was a blues song long before Cream's extended guitar workout.
Of course there were bound to be some missteps – the woman who sang Billie Holiday also did the 12 Songs of Christmas album, which was surprisingly well received – but you never doubted her sincerity when she got behind a beat and a lyric like Tell Mama.
Perhaps what those who wrote the obituaries recognised in James was that rare thing in contemporary music: authenticity. James sang because she had to, not because it was going to help her get a perfume endorsement, movie role or a fashion line in her name.
James was a singer whose gift was channeled through the hurts and triumphs of her life.
She threw herself into songs (like Jimmy Barnes in a way on throat-searing material like Lovin' You More Every Day) just as she was incautious in her private life.
Over her long career Etta James delivered dozens of albums.
But as a starting point you could do worse than the double disc collection At Last: The Best of Etta James.
It covers a lot of that depth and breadth, and will explain why she was, and is, so missed.