“When I’m singing blues,” Etta James once said, “I’m singing life.”
Hers was a difficult life. The legendary singer, who died this morning at the age of 73 after a long struggle with leukemia, was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938, to an unwed 14-year-old girl, and her life was marked by drug addiction and emotional volatility. Through it all, James rose to become one of the most influential and admired singers of the second half of the 20th century.
“There’s a lot going on in Etta James’ voice,” Bonnie Raitt told Rolling Stone in 2008. “A lot of pain, a lot of life but, most of all, a lot of strength. She can be so raucous and down one song, and then break your heart with her subtlety and finesse the next.”
Her greatest hit came in 1961, with the soulful ballad “At Last.” For another side of James’s versatile style, listen and watch above, as she performs the gospel-influenced “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” in 1962. To learn more about James, and to watch video highlights from her career, see today’s article by Ben Greenman on The New Yorker’s “Culture Desk” blog. And over at the Guardian, see Richard Williams selection of 10 Classic Etta James Performances.
In 1997, James summed things up in an interview with Rolling Stone: “Life’s been rough,” she said, “but life’s been good. If I had to go back and do it all over again, I would live it the exact same way.”