Etta James: Rolling Stones #41 of The 200 Greatest Singers of All Time (2023)

Etta James
Born: Jamesetta Hawkins
January 25, 1938
Los Angeles, California, US
Died: January 20, 2012
Riverside, California, US
Occupation: Singer
Genres: Gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, rock & roll, soul

Etta James bridged the gap between rhythm & blues and rock & roll. She won six Grammy Awards and 17 Blues Music Awards. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted her in 1993, the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001. 

In 2003, James received a Grammy lifetime achievement award. Rolling Stones ranked her number 62 on their 2010 list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. In 2023, the publication rated her number 41 of The 200 Greatest Singers of All Time.
One of the quintessential voices in blues music
Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938 to a 14-year-old unwed mother. She never knew her father and was raised by foster parents. By age 5, James was a gospel prodigy, singing in her church choir and on the radio. At 12, she moved to San Francisco, where she worked for bandleader Johnny Otis. Four years later, in 1954, she moved to Los Angeles to record "The Wallflower (Roll With Me, Henry)" with Otis' band. 

At Last!
Album: Etta James
Released: November 15, 1960
Genre: Blues, R&B, traditional pop, soul blues
Producer: Phil Chess, Leonard Chess

At Last! was James' debut album. It reached number 12 on the Billboard Top Catalog Albums chart. Rolling Stone rated the LP number 191 on their pick for the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. 

The record spawned four singles: "All I Could Do Was Cry," "Trust in Me," "At Last,"  and "My Dearest Darling." They charted numbers 2, 2, 4, and 5 on the Billboard Hot R&B Songs chart. 

The song "At Last" was from 1941 for the film musical Sun Valley SerenadeGlenn Miller and his orchestra reached number 42 on the US Billboard pop music chart with their 1942 version. James recorded it shortly after signing with Chess records. Her second number-two R&B hit, it crossed over to pop radio and reached number 47 on Billboard's Hot 100. 

The Library of Congress's National Recording Registry inducted Jame's version of the song in 2009. In 2021, it was ranked number 115 on Rolling Stone's "Top 500 Greatest Songs of All Time." According to the Rolling Stone review: 

"For James' first album for their Chess label, brothers Leonard and Phil Chess envisioned her as a crossover pop stylist rather than the gutsy R&B belter of her earlier singles. Among the songs they picked was this modest hit for big-band leader Glenn Miller in the Forties. Yet it was James' commanding version that turned "At Last" into a pop standard."

In 1993, when James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she performed "At Last!" at the ceremony.

Tell Mama
Album: Etta James
Released: February 1968
Genre: Soul, R&B, blues
Producer: Rick Hall

James battled various drug addictions throughout the years. She was in the midst of her addictions when "At Last" was recorded and isolated herself for a while after 1965. 

When James returned to recording in 1967, she did so at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Four sessions there yielded her comeback hit "Tell Mama," which reached number 10 on the R&B chart and 23 on the Pop. 

An album of the same name was released that year. Besides the title track, the LP contained another Top 10 R&B hit, a cover of Otis Redding's "Security." Another remake was Jimmy Hughes's "Don't Lose Your Good Thing." The record also featured the title track's B-side, "I'd Rather Go Blind," which became one of James's signature songs.

On July 18, 1986, James performed "Tell Mama" at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco with John Lee Hooker and Carlos Santana.

Between 1978 and 1989, James's career was hampered by her struggles with drug abuse. James said of her attempts to beat addiction, "I had given it up many times.

While in rehab in the mid-1970s, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones wrote her a letter, promising her a spot as their opening act when she was ready. A grateful James toured with the legendary rock band in 1978. At the Montreal Jazz Festival that year, she performed a cover of the Eagles' "Take It To the Limit."

In 2008, James was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. In 2011, she was diagnosed with leukemia and dementia. Etta James died on January 20, 2012. Christina Aguilera performed "At Last" as a tribute to her at her funeral. 


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