Remembering Etta James, Stunning Singer The "Matriarch of the Blues" had grit in her voice that could melt like sugar or rub like salt in a wound. The great vocalist, whose turbulent life broke through in her affecting delivery, has died at age 73.

Remembering Etta James, Stunning Singer

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/123125338/145541942" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • 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")

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")

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)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

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

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

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)

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

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)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD MORNING HEARTACHE")

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

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")

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.