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Etta James: A Closer Look Into One Of The Greatest Voices Ever Heard

Etta James, almost universally praised as one of the finest voices of our era, has passed away at 73. Ironically, Ms. James had been discovered and recorded by rhythm and blues pioneer Johnny Otis, who passed away only two days ago. Ms. James, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, and has been honored numerous times by the Grammys and other halls of fame.

James grew up singing in church, where she formed her first all-girl doo-wop group. Otis signed her to record the "answer song" to a hit he had produced for Hank Ballard, "Work With Me, Annie." Otis changed the group's name to The Peaches and recorded James singing "Dance With Me, Henry." The song quickly raced to No. 1 on the Rhythm and Blues chart and was instrumental in securing the group an opening slot on a tour with Little Richard.


Following a rather lackluster string of recordings with Otis's Modern label, James signed with legendary Chicago label owner Leonard Chess, who not only dressed up her music with strings but also convinced her to sing a mix of everything from jazz to blues to rock and roll. Her first solo album 1960's At Last!, was the beginning of a string of hits for Chess subsidiaries that included "I Just Want To Make Love To You," "At Last," "A Sunday Kind of Love," "The Fool That I Am," "Don't Cry Baby," "Something's Got A Hold On Me," and "Pushover."

After a bit of a career stall, James began to record in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, eschewing Chess's strings for something more direct and rocking. "Tell Mama," later covered by Eric Clapton, was her first Muscle Shoals hit. She also issued her version of Otis Redding's "Respect."

Following Leonard Chess's death in 1969, James seemed to lose her way a bit. She developed a drug habit and, although she continued to record, the times seemed to have changed as far as what the record buying public responded to, although she was selected to open a tour for the Rolling Stones.

The singer eventually stopped recording and spent ten years dealing with her personal and substance issues before returning to an active career circa 1980. She recorded numerous albums in a variety of styles and, while they did well, she never reached the kind of popularity she'd had in her early career. She was, however, inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and twice into the Grammy Hall of Fame, indicative of how varied an artist she was.

Following her death this morning, rock and roller and music historian Dave Alvin noted on his Facebook page that James "was without a doubt the greatest Blues, R+B, Soul, Rock n' Roll, Pop or whatever, singer ever born in Los Angeles (or almost anywhere else for that matter). With her death and the recent death of Johnny Otis, and the passing of Johnny Guitar Watson, Richard Berry, Esther Phillips, etc,, the curtain has officially fallen on the old Central Avenue/West Coast R+B scene of decades past."

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William Michael Smith