Despite the news last month that ETTA JAMES had become terminally ill with cancer, it was still a punch to the gut hearing about her death today, just five days before she would've turned 74. And while everyone blows up their Facebook with YouTube clips of "At Last" or some artist (Michael Bolton GTFOH) doing a shitty cover version, it's important to remember that James transcended not only that song, but a slew of genres -- and she killed it in every one.
Bouncing between jazz, blues, gospel, and some early career doo-wop, mainly via her association with Moonglows founder Harvey Fuqua, it wasn't until signing on with Chess Records that James found her home. She stayed on the label through the '60s and '70s, buoyed by her debut with the label, At Last!, which was a hit out of the box. The title track didn't do much upon its initial release, but over the years became her signature song, resonating even through present day. President Obama had Beyoncé do the track at his Inauguration Ball, a move that had James pretty pissed; in the wake of the performance she said the former Destiny's Child star was "gone get her ass whipped." Beyoncé had better taken note too, because James might have actually done it.
The film Cadillac Records, where Beyoncé portrayed the singer with a good degree of artistic license, did get one main point correct: James was tough as nails, moved to her own beat, and didn’t suffer fools. Beneath all that though there were some deep-rooted, swirling emotions that came through in song and an extraordinarily moving and powerful vocal delivery.
James had it rough throughout her life; she had a well-documented battle with heroin, pills, and more recently dementia and leukemia, the latter which ended her life. Those battles she went through made her music that much more authentic; a lot of performers sing about broken hearts, but very few sound like they were actually born with one. Check out "I'd Rather Go Blind," which she claimed to have penned, it's one of the most heartbreaking testaments ever laid on wax. The same could be said for the mournful balladry of "Stormy Weather" and "Stop the Wedding."
Never at the forefront of trends, it was James' multiple shifts in styles that were actually a detriment on her chart success -– she couldn't be placed into a nice little package. But that's what added to her legend and made her a primary influence on spotlighted singers from Diana Ross to Adele. James didn't soften as the years wore on; she in fact became more soulful and haunted sounding, evident in her time on the road, a rigorous schedule that continued up until a few years ago, even confined to a seated position due to a bevy of physical ailments. Even in the face of illness, there was a sense that James was pushing herself because these were songs that people needed to hear.
Rest in peace, sweet princess.