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In Passing: Etta James (1938-2012)

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When I was a teenager and the likes of Roy Orbison, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones dominated my turntable, there was always room for the latest Etta James release. While her style and sound were outside my usual musical preferences, I realized there was something special going on. Many of her 28 studio albums adorn my music collection and so it was with sadness that I head of her death, January 20, at the age of 73.

She was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 14, 1938 and by her early teens had settled in San Francisco. She and her group, The Peaches, came under the tutelage of Johnny Otis, who also passed away several days ago. He helped her sign with the Modern label and changed her professional name to Etta James, a clever re-working of her first name Jamesetta.

Otis and Hank Ballard had written an answer song to Ballard’s “Work With Me Annie.” After hearing James’ vocal on the song they allowed her to take a writing credit as well. The original title of “Roll With Me Henry” was too suggestive for mainline radio of the day and so it was changed to “Dance With Me Henry.” It topped the Billboard Magazine Rhythm & Blues Chart for four weeks during 1955. More important, it and some of the songs that quickly followed helped provide the foundation for early rock ‘n’ roll. Her bluesy vocal style and the rhythms of her music would become a part of rock’s evolution during the 1950s.

She found commercial success with the Chess subsidiary label, Argo, from 1960-1978, placing a couple of dozen singles on both the pop and rhythm & blues charts. She survived drug addiction and hospitalizations as her albums sold millions of copies and she continued to be a concert attraction until a few years before her death. During the past two decades her releases consistently charted near the top of the jazz and blues charts.

At the time of her death she was recognized as one of America’s most respected singers. She was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Fame during 1993 and the Blues Hall Of Fame in 2001. Rolling Stone Magazine placed her at number 32 on its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.

She was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease in 2008, and passed away from complications from leukemia. In addition to two sons and her husband, she leaves behind a catalogue of music among the best in American music history.

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