R.I.P. Etta James, Blues Queen with San Francisco Roots
By JESSICA HILO
Etta James, the incomparable force behind such hits as "At Last" and "Tell Mama," winner of six Grammys and seventeen Blues Music Awards, died Friday morning in Riverside, Calif. after a lengthy battle with leukemia and dementia. She was 73.
James was an integral member of a cult of female blues artists who created a pulpit upon which femininity was reexamined and redefined in the music world -- warts and all. Along with prestigious artists like Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith, James unapologetically innovated and redefined female performance -- inspiring future artists like Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner.
She was born in 1938 and christened under the name Jamesetta Hawkins. Raised in Watts, Calif., James was the product of a one-night-stand between a teenage mother and a presumed Caucasian pool player father. She hobbled between homes through her adolescence, raised by her Aunt Cozie, a madam at a brothel, and later her mother's landlords, Lula and Jesse Rogers.
As a child, James was reared on a healthy diet of rhythm and blues, carted to club concerts to see the likes of Stan Kenton, Amos Milburn, T-Bone Walker, and Josephine Baker. Her vocal talents were stoked at an early age by James Erle Hines, leader of the Echoes of Eden choir at St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
When her foster mother, Lula, passed away, James was abruptly moved to San Francisco to live with her mother Dorothy. It was here in the Fillmore district that she abandoned her gospel roots for the tongue-in-cheek sounds and sexual euphoria of rock, doo-wop, and streetcorner singing.
James formed a band with sisters Abye and Jean Mitchell, called the Creolettes. The band amassed a catalog of suggestive lyrics and nasty grind tunes that pushed the boundaries of musical acceptability.
The group was discovered by Johnny Otis, a promoter and acclaimed "Godfather of Rhythm and Blues" in 1951. The Creolettes traveled with Otis' all-male band back to Los Angles -- permission for which was given by Dorothy through a note James forged. (Dorothy was in jail at the time of the Creolettes' ascension.)
Once in Los Angeles, the Creolettes signed with Modern Records under the name Etta James and the Peaches, which was chosen by Otis). The band released its first hit, "Roll With Me Henry," in 1953; which landed at No. 2 on the Billboard's Rhythm and Blues charts.
Though only 15 years old, James and the Peaches toured with Otis's Rhythm and Blues Revue throughout the country.
Sex was an integral part of the band's performance. James' throaty timbre and uninhibited onstage persona challenged common notions of female sexuality. She embodied the idea that women weren't objects or passive participants, but willing and powerful beings of equal standing to a man and in control of their own sexuality.
On the road, James surrounded herself with a harem of gay men and drag queens, who introduced her to an alternative, rebellious, though tolerant and accepting lifestyle. Through their influence, James adopted the tight-skirted, drugstore blonde, arched eyebrow, and thick eye-lined look synonymous to her name.
"There was ... defiance to my look," said James. "[I] wanted to be noticed."
By the 1960s, James had left Modern Records for Chicago-based label Chess Records. It was here that she recorded her famed jazz ballad, "At Last." The song was originally recorded by Glenn Miller's Orchestra and written in 1941.
The 1960s were filled with extensive touring and chart-topping hits. The move to Chess placed James alongside other great fledgling artists like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. Still, she was an inexperienced composer; and most of her work was acquired for half the royalties she deserved. As a result, James was fettered with financial instability. Feeding into her financial melee was a debilitating addiction to heroin that lasted for over a decade.