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Legendary blues singer Etta James dies at 73 from leukemia complications

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Updated: February 22, 2012 8:00AM



The storms of life bring clarity to a song.

And music is where Etta James found shelter.

Mrs. James died early Friday at Riverside Community Hospital in Riverside, Calif., of complications from leukemia, according to her manager, Lupe De Leon. She was 73.

She also had been suffering from dementia and kidney problems. In December, her physician announced that her leukemia was terminal and asked for prayers for the singer.

Mrs. James’ husband, Artis Mills, and her two sons were at her side when she died, De Leon said.

“It’s a tremendous loss for her fans around the world,” De Leon said. “She’ll be missed. A great American singer. Her music defied category.”

Mrs. James’ best known song was the ballad “At Last,” recorded in 1961, just after she signed with Argo, a subsidiary of Chicago’s Chess Records. With her measured contralto, Mrs. James surrendered to the dynamics of an entire relationship: the wanting, the discovery and renewal. The journey was arduous. And she was at the finish line.

“At Last” was also a crucial record in the lexicon of Chess as it moved the label from a blues imprint (Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf) to pop.

Chicago’s Club De Lisa saxophonist Riley Hampton had been recruited to create the lush arrangements with string sections that had never been used at Chess. The label hit the jackpot, counterpointing Hampton’s sweet pop strings with Mrs. James’ direct blues-jazz style.

Her songs spanned generations. Last year electro-rapper Flo Rida sampled Mrs. James 1962 hit “Something’s Got a Hold On Me” into his hit single “Good Feeling. In 2008 Beyonce’ Knowles portrayed her in the film “Cadillac Records,” which loosely depicted the early years of Chess. “One thing Etta taught me is her fearlessness,” Beyonce’ said while promoting the film. “She was Etta all the time. She did not try to change for anyone. If it weren’t for her crossing over — she was the first African-American woman to cross over on the radio — I wouldn’t have the opportunities I have.” On Friday Beyonce posted on her website, “This is a huge loss. ... When she effortlessly opened her mouth, you could hear her pain and triumph. Her deeply emotional way of delivering a song told her story with no filter.”

Mrs. James was born on Jan. 25, 1938, as Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles. Her mother was a teenaged African-American. She never knew her father and liked to speculate he was the famous pool player Minnesota Fats. Mrs. James was reared by her grandparents and caregivers. She grew up and toured with the late Johnny “Guitar” Watson and was discovered in 1951 by West Coast bandleader Johnny Otis, who died Tuesday at the age of 90. He must have called her home.

Like the doo-wop singers of the era, Mrs. James was singing on street corners of Los Angeles and as an underage act in California nightclubs as a member of the Creolettes. The all-girl trio performed in sparkling gowns with long fish tails, high hair, and big attitudes.

After seeing the group, the colorful Otis renamed them Peaches and turned Mrs. James first name around (from Jamesetta to Etta James). He co-wrote her first hit, 1955’s seminal rock n’ roll classic, “Roll With Me Henry,” that was deemed too suggestive for radio airplay. Georgia Gibbs cleaned it up and had a 1955 pop hit. In 2008 Mrs. James received a Grammy for her version.

Mrs. James’ no-nonsense template had been set.

She would roll through life’s punches.

Mrs. James would encounter leukemia, obesity, gastric bypass surgery, dementia and hepatitis C. Marshall Chess, son of Chess co-founder Leonard Chess was fascinated with Mrs. James cigarette burn tattoos. “Etta was the queen at Chess,” Marshall Chess said Friday from New York. “It was apparent from day one in 1959 when she walked in as a young woman with a whole entourage following behind her, like a scene in a Fellini film. She was one of those special artists like Muddy, Wolf, Chuck [Berry] and Bo [Diddley] and everyone knew it. She took Chess music to a new place.”

As Mrs. James star ascended, she found it difficult to deflect demons. Her heroin addiction was so bad that when her veins collapsed she shot smack into her forehead.

“Music was a way for her to get away from the pain,” said Chicago-based Chess session man Gene Barge, who arranged and produced several of Mrs. James’ singles including her majestic 1970 ballad “Losers Weepers.” “There’s adversity, rejection and not getting some of the money you think you should get which was another reason for her to withdraw. It slowed her down, but she was a great singer that made singers take notice. Like Janis Joplin and others who emulated her style.

“Etta should have been an actress and a comedian. She was very funny. She could impersonate almost anybody singing. She had Ray Charles down to a ‘T’. She knew what she wanted to do in the studio.

She would chew up a producer if he was mild-mannered.”

Chicago gospel-soul icon Mavis Staples last shared a stage with Mrs. James in 2005 at a festival in Lansing, Mich. “When a person had a life like Etta had, you know that music was a refuge,” Staples said. “Singing was all she had to keep her afloat. We were the same in that we did not have voice coaching or music teachers. She probably knew what key she was singing in, I don’t even know that.

“Etta James was a soul singer. At the VH1-“Diva” tapings they asked me to define soul. To me, soul is gut. Etta sang from deep down. She didn’t sing off the top of her head. With soul, you go within to bring out what you want to relate. I loved Etta James.”

Mariah Carey Tweeted on Friday, “Rest in peace to one of the world’s most influential singers Etta James, you will be missed.”

Some called Mrs. James “The Billie Holiday of R&B.” According to the 1995 David Ritz biography, Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story, the owner of a boarding house in which she was raised would wake up Mrs. James up after his all night, drunken poker games. He would force her to sing and as a bed wetter, the young Mrs. James was traumatized. Ritz (who is working on the Buddy Guy biography) wrote that this led to Mrs. James’ life-long reluctance to sing on demand.

In her early years at Chess, Mrs. James boyfriend was the late Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows. They recorded together at Chess, including covering a bawdy horn-laden version of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful.” Even in the early 1960s at Chess, Mrs. James preferred the gritty rhythm and blues of Little Willie John and her mentor Johnny “Guitar” Watson. “I didn’t want to go into that Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf stuff,” she said in the liner notes to the 2000 “Etta James: The Chess Box.” “I thought that was a little too down-home and a little too old for young people.”

In 1969 Mrs. James married Artis Mills and they later were arrested together for heroin possession. He served a 10-year prison sentence. She was sentenced to drug treatment.

On Dec. 19 a judge ruled that Mills would keep decision-making control over her finances and health care, but released only $350,000 for the singer’s medical costs from her $1 million estate instead of the $500,000 Mills requested. Mrs. James’ son Donto had requested a temporary conservationship because of concerns over the expenses.

Mrs. James was inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of fame in 1993 and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001. She won six Grammy awards.

She recorded for Chess between 1960 and 1978, having hits such as “Stop The Wedding” (1962) and the bouncy Beach Music classic “Pushover” (1963). In 1967 Mrs. James recorded for Chess’s Cadet imprint with Barge at Rick Hall’s Muscle Shoals (Ala.) studios and enjoyed crossover hits like “Tell Mama” and the blues ballad “I’d Rather Go Blind,” later popularized by Rod Stewart. In 1997 she hosted the WTTW-Channel 11 documentary “Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm and Blues,” which celebrated Chess, Vee-Jay and other labels that flourished from the mid-1950s until the mid-1970s on the 10-block stretch of South Michigan Avenue, a neighborhood which is now making a comeback as a musical destination.

In a 1995 Q & A with the now-defunct Hear Music, Mrs. James shared the one song that brings her chills: “Shawn Page Rose, the gospel singer,” she said. “ ‘Forgive me Jesus.’ I think when I listen to her it just takes me back to really wanting.”

Mrs. James is survived by her husband and sons Donto and Sametto James, both of whom performed in her band.

Services are pending.

Contributing: AP

For more on Etta James, Mavis Staples and a video of “At Last,” visit blogs.suntimes.com/hoekstra



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