"Matriarch of the Blues" Etta James dies at 71

The "Matriarch of the Blues" has died. Musical legend Etta James died AT THIS PLACE OF THIS CAUSE, AT THIS TIME. She was XX years old.

Etta James Primary 300

Etta James circa 1960. Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938, it was her first manager and promoter, Johnny Otis, who gave her the name “Etta James,” cutting up “Jamesetta” and reversing it. She was discovered when she was fourteen—the same age her mother was when James was born. Within three years, the foster home runaway had her first hit, “Roll With me Henry” (also known as “The Wallflower”), as part of the girl group the Peaches. The song rose to number one on the R&B charts, but was deemed too racy for white radio with its suggestive chorus: “Hey baby, whatta I have to do to make you love me too?/You've got to roll with me Henry.”

James’ rise to success persisted: She was still a minor when she began touring with Little Richard; By 1960, she had signed with leading blues label, Chess Records, and had dyed her hair platinum blonde. “What I was doing was trying to be a glamour girl,” James explained on WHHY’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 earring.”

Between 1960 and 1963, James had ten records on the R&B charts, including “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” and “At Last.” However by the mid-1960s, she had developed an addiction to heroin, and her career grinded to a halt. She bounced checks, forged prescription, 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. During this period, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones sent James a letter inviting her to tour with the band if she stayed clean. In 1978, she joined the Stones on tour

By the '90s, she's reached a new generation of fans, and won a Grammy. She even forayed into jazz, an idea she previously resisted: “It was too disciplined and too confining,” said James. “I thought you had to be bourgeois to do that. I was a sloppy kid [that] wanted to be just wild—I think it took me maturing.” In 1994, she recorded a tribute album to Billie Holiday, Mystery Lady, in partial honor of her mother, who loved Holiday and jazz. James said it helped make peace with the woman she idolized but 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: “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.”

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

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