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Etta James, dead from complications of leukemia at age 73

Yesterday, I knew that I had to blog about the passing of Etta James, at age 73.

I saved her for today. She was a “California original.”

Her death was reported by her friend and manager, Lupe De Leon, who worked with her for over 30 years.

I sit here tonight listening to “Masters of the Blues: The Best of Etta James” playing from my CD on this MacBook Pro, through iTunes. The second song, now playing is “At Last,” a favorite at weddings. As Etta James died, from complications of leukemia, her husband, Artis Mills, and her sons were by her side. She was diagnosed in 2010 with leukemia, and she also suffered from dementia and hepatitis C.

Over the course of Etta James’ career, she suffered from heroin addiction, opened for The Rolling Stones, won SIX Grammy Awards, and was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! Through it all, she kept her optimism.

Etta James died in a hospital in Riverside, California. She would have been 74 on Wednesday.

De Leon said:

She was a true original who could sing it all — her music defied category.”

“Etta James is unmanageable, and I’m the closest thing she’s ever had to a manager,” Lupe DeLeon, her manager of 30-plus years, told CNN in admiration.

Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, to a teen mother and unknown father. James suspected her father was the pool player Minnesota Fats. Her mother showed little maternal responsibility, and James was raised by a series of peoples, in particular, a pair of owners of a boardinghouse. Her powerful voice was recognized and showcased in a church in South Central Los Angeles.

Her birth mother took her to San Francisco in 1950, where James formed a group called “The Peaches.” In San Francisco, she was discovered by singer Johnny Otis, known for “Willie and the Hand Jive,” who had her sing his song that he wrote with Hank Ballard’s song as a model – with responses from Richard Berry, the composer and original performer of “Louie Louie.”

So… as a mere teenager, Etta James sang to Number 1 on the R&B charts in 1955 with “The Wallflower (Roll With Me, Henry)” – an “answer record” to Hank Ballard‘s “Work With Me, Annie.” In 1960, she joined Chess Records and enjoyed a string of R&B and Pop hits.

Chess Records brought Etta James to a much broader audience, since the co-owner of Chess believed that James could sing Pop hits. Among her hits was the Lena Horne classic, “Stormy Weather,” originally from 1933, “A Sunday Kind of Love,” originally from 1946; and most notably, “At Last,” a 1941 song that became a hit for Glenn Miller. “At Last” made it into the R&B Top 10 but failed to reach the Top 40 when it was released in 1961. Taking a back seat to the “British Invasion” in the mid-1960s, she bounced back in 1967, with a soulful, hard-edged sound.

In the 1970s, after entering rehabilitation, she bounced back with live performances and an album produced by noted R&B mastermind Jerry Wexler. After yet another round of rehab, at the Betty Ford Clinic, she came back with the album, “Seven Year Itch,” in 1988. Quite coincidentally (but I am not a strong believer in coincidence), I just replaced the “Best of…” CD with the “Seven Year Itch” comeback album, starting off with “I Got The Will.”

Although Etta James mastered a variety of styles and musical genres, she always seemed to be one step behind the popular music of the day. She was plagued by health problems, and gastric bypass surgery in 2003 reduced her weight from reportedly over 400 pounds in the late 1990 to less than half. By the end of her life though, James had created such a volume of meaningful music that she was considered to be a living legend!

Music lovers will miss her, and cherish her contributions.

-Bill at

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