The Ballad of the Matriarch of Blues

by M-Gillies

Etta James was inducted with Grammy Hall of Fame Awards for At Last in 1999 and for The Wallflower in 2008.

“I’m deeply saddened by the passing of the Great Etta James and I will be forever grateful for the gift she Blessed me with.” ~ Flo Rida

A pioneer of Soul & R&B, the matriarch of Blues, with a powerfully defiant, abrasive, yet versatile vocal style (one which Janis Joplin modelled her singing closely on) Etta James was best known as the sassy R&B and Blues singer who could enliven the raunchiest Blues song, as well as her ability to perform an emotionally driven, yet subtle love song. To pigeonhole James as simply Blues, or R&B, or Rock ‘n’ Roll would be sacrilegious to the talent of her near six-decade accomplishments.

With a career that spanned nearly six-decades, it was announced on January 20, 2011, that the six Grammy and 17 Blues music award winner has died of complications due to leukaemia.

“It’s a tremendous loss for her fans around the world,” manager Lupe De Leon said. “She’ll be missed. A great American singer. Her music defied category.”

In just about every romantic movie made in the last twentieth and twenty-first century; at nearly every wedding; and for many artists over the last 6 decades, James’ signature song At Last has been, for years the musician’s legacy. Though, James may have seen a decline in her popularity in the 80s, the last decade saw a resurgence in her musical talents, particularly with musician Beyonce performing the trademark song during the inauguration of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Recently and perhaps the most popular rendition of her song came after the performance by Josh Krajcik during the 2011 audition for X-Factor, when he turned the classic song in to a soulful man Ballad.

Born in 1938, James never knew her father and rarely saw her mother. She would spend her youth performing on the radio with a Los Angeles Baptist church choir until age 14 when bandleader Johnny Otis invited her and two friends to record the song The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry) in 1955. With the song reaching No. 1 on the R&B chart, James’ career as a young singer was launched and she soon began touring with the likes of Little Richard, Marvin Gaye and Bo Diddley.

Her true success came in 1960 when she signed with Chess Record and released her debut album At Last!, with the title track reaching No. 2 on the R&B charts. From that moment on, she would successfully continue scoring hits until an addiction to heroin derailed her career.

For the next twenty years, James would continue her use of heroin, until 1988, at age 50, she entered the Betty Ford Centre in Palm Springs. Since her stay at the clinic, James has maintained she’s been drug free, and soon continued performing regularly.

“The only time that I am really truly happy ? when I feel at my best ? is when I’m on the stage,” James once said. “I am that little girl who, when she was five years old, used to sing at church.”

It was only near the end of the 80s and early 90s that James saw a resurgence in her career when her music began seeing regular exposure on television commercials. With the revitalization of her music, particularly with her song I Just Wanna Make Love To You reaching the Top 10 on the U.K. Billboard charts in 1996, James was further awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2003, and released her last album, The Dreamer, in November 2011.

As news of her death circulated through media sources, many celebrities have taken to their Twitter to express their condolences. Since 2008, James had been frequently hospitalized for a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease in 2008, an infection caused by MRSA (a type of staph bacteria that does not respond to some antibiotics) in 2010. In January 2011, it was confirmed that she had been diagnosed with Leukaemia and was undergoing treatment, however, as the months passed her condition worsened when she was again hospitalized in May 2011 for urinary tract infection and both dementia and Hepatitis C.

After months of being declared terminally ill, James was released from a Southern California hospital when it was reported her blood pressure had returned to normal and she no longer required the use of a mechanical ventilator. Only fifteen days after her release, James died January 20, 2012, five days away from her 74 birthday.

“Like Aretha (Franklin), Etta is a church in herself,” wrote the late Atlantic Records’ producer Jerry Wexler in the 1992 book Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music. “Her voice a mighty instrument, her musical personality able to express an extraordinary range of moods.”

“A lot of people think the blues is depressing,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1992, “but that’s not the blues I’m singing. When I’m singing blues, I’m singing life. People that can’t stand to listen to the blues, they’ve got to be phonies.”

Other hit songs by the iconic musician include:

The Wallflower (Roll with me,
Trust in
Something’s Got a Hold On
Sunday Kind of
All I Could Do Was
If I Can’t Have
Good Rockin’
My Dearest
Don’t Cry
Stop the
Loving You More Every Day


Etta James – At Last | YouTube


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