Etta James, who has died at the age of 73, possessed a voice that was like a road map of a life lived in turbulence. It was assertive, broad and laced with the air of someone who had seen more than her fair share of heartbreak.
Her delivery was bold and she never sounded like the victim, even when she was singing songs like ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, released in 1968.
Know as “Miss Peaches”, her early singles like 1955’s 'The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry)' were successful on the US R'n'B charts, but it wasn’t until she signed with Chess Records in 1960 that she had cross-over success. From this period came her most famous songs including her gutsy, deeply felt version of 'Stormy Weather'.
Meanwhile the album ‘At Last!’ included the controversially forthright ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’. There was also the title track ‘At Last’ which became her signature track.
The wealth of emotional honesty on display on the album 'At Last!' was stunning, mixing as it did R’n’B with jazz and doo-wop, all of which were held together by James’ sparkling vocal.
The British invasion and her own heroin addiction halted her career in the 60s, but she made a comeback in 1967 when she recorded at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals in Alabama. The sassy, swinging ‘Tell Mama’ comes from this period (it was later covered by Janis Joplin), as does the aforementioned ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’.
After around 30 hits on the US R’n’B charts, two stints in rehab and ill health put her recording career on hold, although she was still touring.
Etta made a recording comeback in 1988 and of this latter part of her career, a highlight was ‘The Blues Is My Business’ from her 2003 album ‘Let’s Roll’, which combined Southern soul with blues rock. On this track, she sounds like the grande dame of rhythm and blues, sounding as commanding as ever.
Her influence went far and wide. Adele called her “my favourite singer ever” whilst Beyonce famously played her in Cadillac Records and sang her trademark ‘At Last’ at President Obama’s inauguration.
Her legacy is perhaps best summed up by fan Christina Aguilera. She said:
There was such soul, emotion and raw heart in (her voice). So much real heart and emotion that's lacking in music today.