Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Etta James—Murfin’s Carols for Corona and Winter Holiday Music Festival

                                                                        Etta James, This Time of Year (When Christmas is Near.)

Let’s settle in for a bluesy, soulful Christmas song.  Set down by your fire or that burning Yule log on TV, Put your feet up and pour yourself a generous glass of your favorite libation.  You are in for a treat.

Jamesetta Hawkins was born to a teen age mother and possible prostitute in Los Angeles, California on January 25, 1938.  Her mother was Black and her unknown father was White giving the child a very light complexion was she described as both a blessing and a curse.  Her childhood was very difficult.  Her mother periodically abandoned her mother and she was placed in a series of foster homes before she was placed with “Sarge” and “MamaLu James.  The couple, recognizing the girl’s natural gift at singing signed her up with the Echoes of Eden choir at St. Paul Baptist Church, in South-Central LA under the direction of James Earle Hines.  Both her choirmaster/mentor Hines and father-figure Sarge physically beat her.

In 1950 when Jamesetta was 12 Mama Lu died and her mother re-entered her life taking her to the San Francisco Fillmore District, even then an enclave of hipsters, musicians, and viper drug culture.  Influenced by the doo-wop sound she heard on the street she formed her own girl group, the Creolettes, named for the members’ light-skinned complexions at age 14 and soon attracted the attention of the singer, DJ, and producer Johnny Otis, a pioneer of West Coast Rock and Roll and Rhythm and Blues.  Under his tutelage the Creolettes were re-named the Peaches and their lead singer became Etta James.

Their first collaboration was an answer song to Hank Ballard’s Work With Me, Annie.  Etta was given co-writer credit when Dance With Me Henry was recorded in early1955 and shot to the top of the Billboard Hot Rhythm & Blues Tracks chart that February.  That led to joining Little Richard’s national tour as the opening act.

Young Etta James recording.

After the fast start the teenage phenome charted another R&B hit, Good Rockin’ Daddy but struggled to get traction on follow-ups.  Her label, Modern, dropped her in 1960.  That turned out to be a very good thing.  She signed with Chicago-based Chess Records which open up new worlds for her.  At Chess subsidy Argo records she dueted with Harvey Fuqua scoring hits with If I Can’t Have You and Spoonful, the Willie Dixon song that became a blues classic for Howlin’ Wolf and later Cream. 

Leonard Chess reimagined James as a classic ballad singer and saloon chanteuse recording her with lush string arrangements on her Argo LP debut, At Last!  Although not a huge hit on its initial release, it has entered the musical canon as one of the greatest albums of all time.  The sultry title song became James’s signature song.  The album and its follow-up, The Second Time Around featured a wide mix of styles—jazz standards, blues, doo-wop, and smooth R&B.  James continued to expand her range of styles by adding gospel overtones on hits like Something’s Got a Hold on Me and Stop the Wedding.  She released her first live album in 1963.  In 1967 she recorded at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama with gutsier R&B numbers including her hit Tell Mama.   

Etta's classic album At Last!

Despite her success James fought periodic depressions and sank into pill-popping and heroin addiction.  She did not record and seldom performed live for two years and when she struggled to return she was devastated by the death of Leonard Chess in 1969.

During her late ‘60’s absence she bounced checks, forged prescriptions, and stole from her friends.   She was arrested in 1966 for kiting bad checks, placed on probation, and ordered to pay a $500 fine. In 1969, she spent 10 days in jail for violating probation.  Her musician friends included many addicts including Ellington “Fugi” Jordan with whom she co-wrote I’d Rather Go Blind after visiting him in prison.  That year she also married another user, Artis Mills.

James had a string of legal hustles during the early 1970s due to her heroin addiction. She was in and out of rehabilitation centers. Her husband accepted responsibility when they were both arrested for heroin possession and served a 10-year prison sentence finally released in 1981.  In 1973, James was arrested for possession of heroin and the following year was sentenced to drug treatment instead of serving time in prison. While there she became addicted to methadone and would mix her doses with heroin. She was in the Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital for 17 months. After leaving treatment, however, her substance abuse continued after she developed a relationship with another addict.  In 1988, at the age of 50, James entered the Betty Ford Center, for treatment.  But in 2010, she was back in treatment for a dependency on painkillers.

In between these struggles James continued to record and perform live, but despite scoring a few mid-level R&B hits in the early ‘70s never again matched the success of her glory years with Chess.  She recorded her last Chess album in 1976 and moved to Warner Bros.  In ’78 to record a more rock based album that caught the attention of the Rolling Stones who had her open some American tour dates in ’79.  But after that promising flash, James did not record again for ten years as she battled her demons. 

She slowly began to perform live again with musicians who admired her in the 1980s  including two guest appearances at Grateful Dead concerts in as a guest on John Mayal’s Blues Breakers 1982 reunion show in New Jersey . In 1984 she contacted David Wolper and asked to perform in the opening ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympics, at which she sang When the Saints Go Marching In.  In 1987, she did Rock & Roll Music with Chuck Berry in the documentary film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.  That set a pattern of her being periodically rediscovered by new generations of musicians and fans.

In 1989, she signed with Island Records and released two albums Seven Year Itch and Stickin’ to My Guns.  Once again expanding her range she worked rap singer Def Jef on the song Droppin’ Rhymes on Drums, which mixed James's jazz vocals with hip-hop.  In 1993 James was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

James signed with Private Music Records that year and recorded a Billie Holiday tribute album, Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday—a tribute to a singer whose troubled life mirrored her own. The album set a trend of incorporating more jazz elements in her won her first Grammy Award, for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female, in 1994. In 1995, her autobiography, A Rage to Survive, co-written with David Ritz, was published.

She was achieving the status of a revered roots artist.  In 2001, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. In 2003, she received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. On her 2004 release, Blue Gardenia, she returned to a jazz style. Her final album for Private Music, Let’s Roll, released in 2005, won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked her number 62 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.  She performed frequently at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival, San Francisco Jazz Festival, Playboy Jazz Festival, North Sea Jazz Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Etta with Beyoncé Knowles who portrayed her in the film Cadillac Records.

In 2008, James was portrayed by Beyoncé Knowles in the film Cadillac Records, a fictional account of Chess Records.  In April 2009, at the age of 71, James made her final television appearance, singing At Last on Dancing with the Stars. In May 2009, she received the Soul/Blues Female Artist of the Year award from the Blues Foundation, the ninth time she won the award. She carried on touring but by 2010 had to cancel concert dates because of her gradually failing health, after it was revealed that she was suffering from dementia and leukemia. In November 2011, James released her final album, The Dreamer, which was critically acclaimed upon its release.

She died on January 20, 2012, five days before her 74th birthday, at Riverside Community Hospital in Riverside, California.  Her funeral was presided over by Reverend Al Sharpton.  Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé, and Christina Aguilera each sang a musical tribute. She was buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles County.

Etta's 1988 Christmas album.

Today’s Winter Holidays Festival selection, This Time of Year (When Christmas is Near), with music and words by Cliff Owens and Jesse Hollis was included on her 1988 album Etta James Christmas

1 comment:

  1. I had no idea of her struggles with addiction!! She had a great gift, it was too much for her to handle! Grateful for the songs she was able to give! Thank you, Patrick! 🙏🏽👍🏼❤️