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Remembering Etta James, Stunning Singer

Etta James rehearses a song before recording at Fame Studios circa 1967 in Muscle Shoals, Ala. (Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

The "Matriarch of the Blues" has died. Music legend Etta James died Friday morning at Riverside Community Hospital in California of complications from leukemia. She was 73.

She was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938. Her first manager and promoter cut up Jamesetta's name and reversed it: Etta James.

Her talent was discovered when she was 14 — the same age her mother was when James was born. Within three years, the foster-home runaway had her first hit, with the girl group The Peaches. Back then, "Roll With Me Henry" was deemed too racy for radio, "roll" being a sexual euphemism.

Etta James was still a minor when she toured with Little Richard. Then, she signed with leading blues label Chess Records and bleached her hair platinum blond.

"What I was doing was trying to be a glamour girl," she told NPR's Fresh Air in 1994. "Because I'd been a tomboy, and I wanted to look grown and wanted to wear high-heeled shoes and fishtail gowns and big, long rhinestone earrings."

Darkness Beneath The Joy

James had grit in her voice that could melt like sugar or rub like salt in a wound. Between 1960 and 1963, she had 10 records on the R&B charts, including "Something's Got a Hold on Me."

Darkness runs beneath that joy — as does anger, says David Ritz, who wrote a biography of James.

"It isn't like she sings that song," Ritz says. "Sometimes, you feel she was going to war with the song."

By the mid-1960s, James was into hard drugs, and her career hit the skids. She bounced checks, forged prescriptions and stole from her friends. A judge finally gave her a choice: prison or rehabilitation. In 1974, she spent months in recovery at a psychiatric hospital.

"I was around nothing but a lot of white kids," James told Fresh Air. "They were all younger than I was. I remember on Saturdays, they would play rock 'n' roll records and I would say, 'That music is really happening.' My song, 'I'd Rather Go Blind' — they had a version by Rod Stewart, and they kept saying, 'This is the song you wrote!' And I'd say, 'All right!' "

Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones sent James a letter while she was in rehab and invited her to tour with the band if she stayed clean. In 1978, she joined the Stones on tour. By the '90s, she'd reached a new generation of fans and won a Grammy. The next challenge was jazz.

"[Jazz] was too disciplined and too confining," James said on Fresh Air. "I thought you had to be bourgeois to do that. I was a sloppy kid, wanted to be just wild. I think it took me maturing."

James said making her tribute to Billie Holiday, 1994's Mystery Lady, also honored her mother, who loved both Holiday and jazz. She said it helped make peace with the woman she idolized, and who had abandoned her.

It's often said of Etta James that you could hear her whole life in her voice. James told NPR in 1989 that that made sense, though she mostly sang for herself.

"When I sing for myself, I probably sing for anyone who has any kind of hurt, any kind of bad feelings, good feelings, ups and downs, highs and lows, that kind of thing," she said.

Etta James went to extremes, and owned them in her life, and in her music.

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More Photos

Etta James poses for a publicity photo supporting the March 14, 2006 release of her album "All Th...

Posed studio portrait of Etta James, circa 1961. (Gilles Petard/Redferns)

Etta James (center) poses with Phil Chess (left), founder of Chess Records, and producer Ralph Ba...

Rhythm and blues singer Etta James playing with her kitten at the hospital in 1974 where she was ...

Muhammad Ali plays a few notes on the piano with Etta James while visiting black American artists...

R&B singer Etta James performs on stage in September 1992 in San Francisco, California. (Jon Siev...

Singer Etta James displays her star during a ceremony honoring her on the Hollywood Walk of Fame ...

Etta James performs at the 2009 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at the Fair Grounds Race Cou...

Etta James at the premiere of "Cadillac Records" on Nov. 24, 2008 in Los Angeles. (Matt Sayles, AP)

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And finally, this hour, music legend Etta James has died. The 73-year-old singer was known as the Matriarch of the Blues, but her unmistakable voice defied genre. Blues, R&B, rock, jazz, she could do it all. Her career spanned more than half a century and influenced countless singers. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Etta James had grit in her voice that could rub like salt in a wound or melt like sugar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT LAST")

ETTA JAMES: (Singing) At last, my love has come along.

ULABY: She was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938. Her first manager and promoter cut up Jamesetta's name and reversed it. Etta James. She was discovered when she was 14, the same age her mother was when Etta James was born. Within three years, the foster home runaway had her first hit with the girl group The Peaches.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLL WITH ME HENRY")

JAMES: (Singing) Roll with me, Henry. You better roll it while the rolling is on.

ULABY: "Roll With Me Henry" was deemed too racy for radio because roll was a euphemism for sex. Etta James was still a minor when she toured with Little Richard. Then she signed with leading blues label Chess Records and dyed her hair platinum blonde.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JAMES: What I was doing was trying to be a glamour girl...

ULABY: That's James on WHYY's FRESH AIR in 1994.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JAMES: ...because I had been a tomboy most of the time, and I wanted to look grown. You know, I wanted to wear high-heeled shoes and fishtail gowns and big long rhinestone earrings.

ULABY: Between 1960 and 1963, James had 10 records on the R&B charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING'S GOT A HOLD ON ME")

JAMES: (Singing) Something's got a hold on me, yeah. Oh, it must be love. Oh...

ULABY: A darkness runs beneath that joy and an anger, says David Ritz. He wrote a biography of Etta James.

DAVID RITZ: It isn't like she sings the song. Sometimes you kind of feel like she's going to war with the song.

ULABY: By the mid-1960s, Etta James was using hard drugs. She bounced checks, forged prescriptions and stole from her friends. A judge finally gave her a choice: prison or rehab. In 1974, she spent months in recovery at a psychiatric hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JAMES: I was around nothing but a lot of white kids. And the thing were they were all younger than I was, and I remember on Saturdays they would play all these great rock 'n' roll records. And I would say, ooh, man, that music is really happening. And then what really made me think is because my song "I'd Rather Go Blind," they had a version of it by Rod Stewart. And they kept saying, hey, this is the song you wrote, listen. And I'd say, all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'D RATHER GO BLIND")

JAMES: (Singing) Something told me it was over.

ULABY: Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones sent James a letter in rehab and invited her to tour with the band if she stayed clean. In 1978, she joined the Stones on tour. By the 1990s, she'd reached a new generation of fans and won a Grammy. The next challenge was jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JAMES: It was too disciplined. It was too confining. At least, that's the way I thought. And I thought you had to be really, really cool and be bourgeois, you know, to do that. And I didn't want to do that. I mean, I was a sloppy kid with tattoos all over. I wanted to be just wild. I think it took me maturing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD MORNING HEARTACHE")

JAMES: (Singing) My poor heart is all sentimental, not made of wood.

Etta James said her tribute to Billie Holiday also honored her mother, who loved Holiday and jazz. She said it helped make peace with the woman she idolized and who had abandoned her. It's often said of Etta James that you could hear her whole life in her voice. James told NPR in 1989 that made sense, though she mostly sang for herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JAMES: You know, and when I sing for myself, I probably just sing for everybody that has any kind of little hurt or any kind of bad feelings or good feelings, ups and downs, you know, highs and lows, that kind of thing.

ULABY: Etta James went to extremes and owned them in her life and in her music. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNDAY KIND OF LOVE")

JAMES: (Singing) I want a Sunday kind of love, a love to last past Saturday night, and I'd like to know it's more than love at first sight. And I want a Sunday kind of love, oh, yeah, yeah. I want a love that's on the square. Can't seem to find somebody, someone to care. And I'm on a lonely road that leads to nowhere. I need a Sunday kind of love. I do my Sunday dreaming, oh, yeah, and all my Sunday scheming every minute, every hour, every day.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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