Legendary blues and R&B singer Etta James passed away this morning at a Riverside, CA hospital due to complications from leukemia. After a long and celebrated career, in which she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, won awards and acclaim for numerous hit singles, and gained throngs of imitators and followers, James’ health had been failing for years. In her twilight years, she also struggled with dementia and kidney failure.
James’ life was tumultuous as her career was fruitful. She struggled with substance abuse, first with heroin, and later to painkillers and prescription drugs. Her relationship with her mother, who was only 14 years old when she had Etta, was difficult and volatile. As a child, James was in and out of foster care; she never knew her father. Yet her huge talent was discovered remarkably early through her church, whose services were frequented by prominent Hollywood figures, and whose choir conducted weekly radio broadcasts. James was only 5 years old when the music minister, influential gospel figure Professor James Earl Hines, singled her out for solos; word of the girl’s fantastic abilities began to spread. As a teen, she formed a trio called “The Peaches,” which was discovered by promoter James Otis, and whose first break-out single came in 1955 — “Roll with Me Henry,” a saucy and humorous take on Hank Ballard’s recent hit, “Work with Me Annie.” She went on to become one of the most influential performers of the century, performing, rehearsing with, and learning from such famed fellow travelers as Billie Holliday, Ray Charles, and Chet Baker.
Over her six decades of recording, her most well-known songs include the smooth, emotionally charged R&B single “At Last,” and “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which Rolling Stones critic David Marsh included in his 1999 book, “The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made.”
As one of the greatest voices of all time, it is probably safe to say that Etta James will always be remembered. And of course, she will also surely be missed.