Etta James dies

By | Published on Monday 23 January 2012

Etta James

Soul singer-songwriter Etta James has died, aged 73. She had been suffering from dementia and leukaemia, the latter of which it was announced in December was incurable. She was in hospital throughout Christmas after having trouble breathing, but her condition improved earlier this month and she was discharged. However, she passed away on Friday.

Born in LA on 25 Jan 1938, Jamesetta Hawkins began singing in a gospel choir in the 1950s, before moving to San Francisco, where she met legendary band leader Johnny Otis (who also died last week) when she and two friends auditioned for him as a group, calling themselves The Creolettes, hoping to record his answer to Hank Ballard’s ‘Work With Me, Annie’, a track called ‘Roll With Me, Henry’.

Taking them under his wing, Otis suggested Hawkins perform as Etta James, giving her the stage name should would continue to use for the rest of her life, while also renaming the group The Peaches. Re-titled ‘Dance With Me, Henry’, due to fears about the suggestive nature of the original title, the group released the song through Modern Records in 1955 (although only Etta actually appeared on the recording) and it went to the top of the R&B charts.

James soon went solo but initially struggled to match the success of that first hit. However, in 1960, her contract with Modern ended and she signed a new deal with Chess Records, which proved to be a turning point. After a number of hits, both collaborative and solo, she released her debut album ‘At Last!’ in late 1960, which featured songs such as ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ and the title track, which became her signature.

She released a follow-up, ‘The Second Time Around’, the following year, and continued to enjoy success with songs such as ‘Pushover’. However, by the late 60s, her career had started to wane. In the 70s she began to struggle with heroin and alcohol addiction, and had various stints in both rehab and jail. And in 1974 she was sentenced to enrol in a drug treatment programme, which saw her spend a year and a half in a psychiatric hospital.

She released two more albums for Chess in 1978, before leaving the label the same year. Although she had been clean during that time, she relapsed and began using heroin again. For the next decade she continued to battle with her addiction and only played occasional gigs. In 1988, she went through rehab again, and signed to Island Records the following year, releasing here fifteenth studio album, ‘The Seven Year Itch’, and another, ‘Stickin To My Guns’, shortly afterwards.

In the 90s, James once again became hot property, being inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame and winning her first Grammy, and she received a further career boost in 1996 when ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ was used in a Diet Coke advert.

James continued to record and perform into her 70s, playing her final shows in 2010, though health problems meant she was forced to cancel many planned dates. She released her final album, ‘The Dreamer’, in November last year, though by this time was suffering from her leukaemia and various complications and infections related to it.

She is survived by her husband, Artis Mills, and their two sons, Donto and Sametto.