Remembering Etta James

Image Courtesy of BMI

By Katie Van Lew

In modern times, it can be quite easy to be distracted by the monotony of electronic music on the radio, with catchy songs that are trendy, albeit, for a short period of time. These songs, and their popularity, decay with time. Roughly 60 years ago, Etta James entranced listeners everywhere with At Last! (1961). To this day, James’ impact ascends, influencing the world’s biggest artists today, including Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson, and Christina Aguilera. 

Etta James was born on January 25, 1938 in Los Angeles. As a child, she was a “gospel prodigy” with her strong and ethereal voice capturing the audience at her church. One could say that James was destined for greatness, as she continued to sing, eventually forming her own trio. By 1960, James had pivoted from collaborative work to pursuing a solo career, signing with Chess Records. With a record label under her belt, James captivated the nation with her soulful ballads on her debut album, At Last! (1961).

Her distinctive contralto is transcendental. With every note she belts, her singing is effortless in execution and all the more powerful in passion. The fervor in her voice is a raw, unadulterated love concoction that makes the heart flutter. If heaven was a song, it would certainly be hers. On her debut album, her voice is frequently accentuated by violins, which balances the ardor in her voice. 

In songs like “My Dearest Darling,” and “All I Could Do Was Cry,” James’ rasp livens the songs, imparting every ounce of emotion in a measly three minutes. It’s a vial of warmth and love, encompassed in each verse, melody, and harmony. Her voice is always uncalculated, maneuvering through twists and turns of the song with a bellowing, infinite passion that never ceases to move the listener. In each and every song, James unleashes an emotional intensity that remains unmatched to this day. 

James was never afraid of vulnerability, nor was she afraid of straying from the familiar. She continued to push her boundaries, switching her sound from invigorating and soulful love ballads to rock and roll tracks such as “Something’s Got A Hold On Me.” The song isn’t one of her ordinary heart-wrenching love ballads, but a fun upbeat anthem that encapsulates a nuanced blend of love intertwined with the beloved rock and roll. Her artistry bled into many genres, and she proved to be quite fearless and dominative in experimenting with blues, soul, and rock; James continued to sparkle in making each genre her own.

Over the course of her career, James has released 30 studio albums, three live albums, and six compilation albums. Her lasting legacy is commemorated through the countless, and well-deserved accolades she has accumulated over the course of her career. She is the recipient of six Grammy awards, with her first win being Mystery Lady, in which she covered notorious singer Billie Holiday’s work in 1994. Even more impressively, James has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1993), the Grammy Hall of Fame (1999), and the Blues Hall of Fame (2001). Amidst the innumerable accolades she received, the most noteworthy has been “The Lifetime Achievement Award” presented to her at the 46th annual Grammy Awards. Through this, James was recognized by her lifetime contribution to music, honoring her prodigious artistry and talent within the world of music.

The many accolades that adorn her name will never be enough to contextualize just how Etta James’ profound voice, stage presence, and artistry will always be. A true pioneer of R&B, her legacy glimmers in all her glory, even all these decades later.

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