Saturday, January 21, 2012

Etta James: At Last

Yesterday, the world lost an R&B legend – Etta James. Her stage name came from the reversal of her actual birth first name of Jamesetta Hawkins. Her light complexion can be attributed to her white father who was thought to be Rudy Wanderone who claimed to be the inspiration for the character Minnesota Fats in the Hustler and began using the moniker Minnesota Fats for his advantage. Her crazy eyebrows came from the torture that women put themselves through by tweezing their eyebrows and then drawing them back – a sense of mid twentieth century kitsch. Her voice was a gift from God.

James had several Top Forty mid-charting hits; however, her greatest chart success was on Billboard’s Rhythm and Blues charts. One of her best known singles was the #2 R&B hit “At Last.” While it was one her two highest charting R&B hits (the other being “All I Could Do but Cry”), “At Last” only charted on the Hot 100 at #47 – making it a perfect selection for our “Bubbling Under” category.

James had a trauma filled life with abuse as a child. Her later life was fraught with drug addiction and run-ins with the law. Even after receiving treatment for her dependencies, James would fall off the wagon and resume her drug usage. She died on Friday from leukemia. It was five days before her 74th birthday.

“At Last,” written in 1941 by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren and recorded by James twenty years later 1961, became her signature song and it received recognition by winning in the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999. She is immortalized in steel along with Albert King and Bo Diddly at the Willie Dixon Blues Garden next to the immortal Chess Records studios at 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. James’ hits on the Chess subsidiary Argo Records were recorded at this studio. I took the following photo when I made a pilgrimage to Chess Records in 2006.

Rest in Peace Etta – you’ll be missed.

Live Version from Dancing with the Stars in 2009

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