Jazz Profiles from NPR
Etta Jones
Produced by Joan Merrill

Etta Jones  

Etta Jones sang professionally for over 50 years, yet she steadfastly remained a "best-kept secret" throughout her career. With the clarity of Carmen McRae and the edge of Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, her unique style drew from gospel, R&B, blues, and jazz.

Listen to singers Charles Brown, Denise Perrier and bassist Peter Martin Weiss describe Etta's singing

Etta was born November 25, 1928, in Aiken, South Carolina and when she was three years old, the family moved to New York City. At 15, her family members encouraged her to enter a local talent contest and though she didn't win, she got much more -- a job as the newest and youngest member of pianist Buddy Johnson's big band.

Listen to Etta recall her days with Buddy Johnson's big band

Etta stayed with Johnson's big band for a year and then went out on her own in 1944 to record several sides with noted jazz producer and writer Leonard Feather. In 1947, she returned to singing in big bands, one led by drummer J.C. Heard and the next with legendary pianist, Earl "Fatha" Hines, whom she stayed with for three years.

Listen to Etta comment on Earl "Fatha" Hines

Etta struck out on her own again in 1952, performing at smaller New York City clubs such as The Onyx and the Baby Grand. To make ends meet, she often worked odd jobs as an elevator operator, a seamstress and a LP jacket stuffer at London Records.

Listen to Etta recall her "salad days" in New York City

In 1960, Etta hit it big with "Don't Go To Strangers" on Prestige Records. The single became a jukebox favorite, while the album of the same title earned her a gold record.

Listen to Etta reflects on the success of "Don't Go to Strangers"

Houston Person  

In 1968, at a Washington, D.C. gig, Etta teamed up with tenor saxophonist, Houston Person (left) and his trio. The chemistry reminded them both of another great vocal/sax duo -- Billie Holiday and Lester Young. Etta and Houston decided to work together and formed a partnership that lasted over 30 years.

Listen to Etta and Houston talk fondly about their musical chemistry

Etta and Houston continued performing together around the world, staying their course while riding the rocky waves of rapidly changing musical trends. Fortunately, they weren't in it for the money, rather the joys of travelling and meeting new friends.

Etta received a Grammy nomination in 1980 for her album, Save Your Love For Me. Unfortunately, her physical health began deteriorating because of cancer. She re-emerged in the early 1990s with a new passion for life and a spirit for musical adventure. She took on more solo gigs and began collaborating with young musicians such as pianist Benny Green and bluesman Charles Brown.

Listen to Houston, Etta and Benny Green talk about her work with Green

On Oct. 16, 2001, Etta Jones lost her long battle with cancer, the day her last album, Etta Jones Sings Lady Day was released.

Listen to Houston, bassist Peter Martin Weiss, and Etta comment on her long career


View the Etta Jones show playlist


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