R&B legend Etta James, who would’ve turned 74 in a couple of days, has passed away after a long battle with leukemia complicated by dementia. Discovered by Johnny Otis (he was the one who rechristened Jamesetta Hawkins, Etta James), she was brought closer to the mainstream by Leonard Chess, and remained in her lifetime the First Lady of the Blues. James was known for her hits “At Last,” “Tell Mama,” “Wang Dang Doodle” and “I’d Rather Go Blind” among many other greats, as well as for her struggle with drug addiction. Inspired by Malcolm X, she joined the Black Muslims, as a way to get clean. As Jamesetta X, she attended Temple 15 in Atlanta where Louis Farrakhan was minister. “I became an honorable Elijah Muhammad Muslim…No more slave name.” She believes her example may’ve had some influence on Cassius Clay turning toward the organization, though in her case, the faith didn’t stick. She lived to tell these stories and more in her autobiography, A Rage to Survive. Following a near decade sidelined by trouble, she resurfaced in the late ’80s after appearing in the Chuck Berry tribute film, Hail, Hail Rock’n’Roll, to largely resume her career and receive awards from all quarters, from the Blues Foundation, Grammy and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, for her contribution to early rock’n’roll.
Sadly, Ms. James’ final months were disquieted by family finance trouble and a lawsuit pending between her husband, Artis Mills, and her son, Donto James (which was reportedly settled before her passing). She also made headlines in recent years when while falling ill she was still touring, performing, and calling out Beyonce (the singer had portrayed her in Cadillac Records, though it wasn’t the celluloid portrayal of her that the blues diva minded so much—in fact she went on the record as quite liking it). James didn’t like it when Mrs. Jay-Z went and performed the James signature song, “At Last”, for the President and Mrs. O at the inaugural festivities, though she eventually came clean about the hurt feelings behind being excluded from the inaugural ball proceedings. Truth be told, James would’ve had to have had to considerably clean-up her NC-17 stage show for a G-rated White House appearance, as even in her early ’70s, the blueswoman walked the razor’s edge. Ms. James has been in my thoughts this past year, and especially in the last day since her early mentor Johnny Otis’ passing; my condolences to the James-Mills families, friends and fans. Here she is one more time, with Robert Cray, Johnnie Johnson, and Keith Richards, singing Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Gal”.
More on Etta James, her relationship to early rock’n’roll, and her experience with the Nation of Islam in Keep on Pushing.