Etta James, R.I.P.

Etta James used to tell a story about meeting Billie Holiday in which Holiday told her—fatherless wild child to fatherless wild child—not to let the bad men and drugs that were going to come her way destroy her. Something about that brief conversation must've stuck, because despite many misadventures with drugs and men over the years, James was sober by the time I met her in the early '90s and carefully planning the comeback which won her new contracts, tours, awards, and laurels. James lived to see her role as a musical pioneer boldly re-inscribed in America's public memory, then capped her legacy with a magnificent final album mere months before her death in Riverside, Calif., on January 20, just five days short of her 74th birthday.

The cosmic coincidence of Etta's first commercial producer Johnny Otis dying only days before she passed underscores the importance of their collaboration. She approached the bandleader/talent scout because of his reputation around black Los Angeles as an offbeat visionary who could make things happen. She knew that if her intimidating package of jailbait-mojo didn't scare him off (as it almost did) they could make successful recordings together.

Like Aretha, James—born born Jamesetta Hawkins—learned to sing in her local church choir, but the Los Angeles scene didn't sound like Detroit, Chicago, New York, Philly, Memphis or N'awlins. Despite migration, touring, and national radio, each city created its own flavor of what Billboard would call "race music," and the Baptist church a pre-pubescent James shared with jazz-gospel legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe was famous for cultivating versatile, powerful performers.

Otis (nee John Veliotes, a Greek-American musical entrepreneur who chose to identify as black) met the half-black Hawkins, who believed Minnesota Fats was her missing deadbeat dad, in 1954. He changed her name and the name of the girl trio she'd formed to record with, then released "Etta"'s first r&b chart hit when she was 15: a provocative answer record to Hank Ballard's "Work With me Annie" variously called "The Wallflower/Roll with Me Henry."

Etta James & The Peaches, "Roll With Me Henry"

By producing this sex-positive track for Modern Records, Otis coincidentally established James as a rock and roll rebel alongside the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis—long before young females were fully accepted into the more genteel doo-wop scene, which filled the pop charts with Brill Building girl groups during the 1960s.

Etta's move from California's Modern label to Chess Records in 1960 would further separate her from her Brill Building peers by placing her among a roster of rough and ready bluesmen, with whom she was all too willing to compete in sound and style. Although happy to make silky crossover ballads like "At Last," she equally enjoyed sending rockin' dance numbers like "Tell Mama" or "Something's Got A Hold On Me" up the r&b charts. "Some people call me a jazz singer, and some call me a rock or blues singer," she once quipped, "but if it's about work I don't care what they call me, as long as they call me."

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