It was Friday, the 20th day in January of 2012 and I was planning my week, outlining the ways I could approach my work, and watching the Australian Open, glad to be inside because outside the weather was frightful. Federer had his hands full with a taller player who possesses a monstrous serve, Ivo Karlovic. In the midst of this gentle multitasking, the phone rang—did you hear that Etta James died this morning of chronic leukemia? Damn. I wanted the first month of a new year to pass without consequence. And now my mind was playing “At Last.”
Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins on 25 January 1938. She began singing gospel. Yet, at fifteen, she recorded the raunchy “Roll with Me Henry.” Early on, too, she worked at her career with a group called Peaches. And although many believed that she picked up the nickname “Peaches” because of her peaches and cream complexion, it might have stemmed from that first little rhythm and blues singing group. From gospel to rhythm and blues, James went on to fashion a career as a powerful singer who worked in a variety of musical genres. And when she recorded “At Last,” people of various musical tastes became acquainted with that sultry voice. She had it made, at least in the music business—her personal life suffered from an addiction to big time drugs.
She was inducted into the Roll and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, just one of her many honors. By that time she had left her mark with many of her own compositions and those of other artists, for example “Tell Mama,” “I Just Wanna Make Love to You,” “All I Could Do Was Cry,” and “Trust in Me.” For me, though, she won my attention when she recorded the album Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday in 1993, which brought her a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance in 1994.
Every cut on Mystery Lady is impeccably rendered. I recommended that music to or played the cd for all my friends, which is probably the reason I lost it. Because of that recording, I have listened more closely to anything James sings. Funny how people and times achieve value. Whenever I hear that voice, whatever the song, I take note of Etta James. She may have gone, but she achieved a bit of immortality.