Remembering the Soulful Etta James

“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.”


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  • Laurel says:

    How sad it is that it took her death to bring her more atten­tion than she has received since the 60’s. All day long Etta James has been trend­ing on Twit­ter. At least, or hope­ful­ly, it showed young peo­ple what a real soul is. It ain’t Gaga, and it sure ain’t Bey­once.

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