Blues Music. Etta James

Essay, 2017

4 Pages


Early life and historical overview

American Grammy Award-winning singer Etta James was born in 1938 in Los Angeles, California as Jamesetta Hawkins to 14-year old Dorothy Hawkins and an unknown white father. She was raised by adoptive parents until the age of 12 when her foster mother, Mama Lu, died and her biological mother took up the responsibility. By the age of 5, Etta was a gospel prodigy (James and Ritz 3). She sang in her church choir and graduated into a lead due to her strong voice. Her vocal prowess saw the artist sing on the radio.

When her mother took her back, she moved to San Francisco and found herself living in an unsupervised environment where she started doing drugs and engaging in criminal activities. She had a combative relationship with her mother and was very rebellious, a juvenile delinquent who eventually got herself expelled from school. Her mum was not so present, and she refers to her as "the mystery lady." (James and Ritz 3)

By age 14, she had fully joined the music industry, and her music career went on to soar after signing with Chicago's Chess Records in 1960. She is not documented as having undertaken substantial formal education. Her artwork attracted positive attention from critics and fans alike, and her performances and soulful, extra-ordinary voice enabled her to continue recording and having event performances into the 90s. She married Artis Mills in 1969 and had two sons who would eventually perform with her.

Jamesetta had a tumultuous childhood, given her mother was not often available. She juggled between relatives and foster care. The church choir seems to have been her refuge, and she went on to sing professionally with church influences such as James Earl Hines.

During her teenage years in San Francisco, despite erratic behavior, her love for music grew stronger and together with two of her friends, she formed a street-corner band the Creolettes, which was taken under the wing of lead-producer-entrepreneur Johnny Otis, who transformed Jamesetta into Etta James and renaming her group to the Peaches (Lipsitz 23) . The band went on tours with Otis along with other musicians. Thus, it prepared Etta for her solo career, which had a slow and challenging start. In her later years, she is depicted as having been a significant contributor and influential to numerous artists such as Christina Aguilera, Amy Winehouse, and Adele among many.

Etta James’ life was characterized by personal problems, including obesity, incarceration, drug addiction, bad management and this has always been thought to be the reason she was not as highly acclaimed alongside other singers such as Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, and Nina Simone. Even so, Terry Stewart, president and chief executive of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was quoted saying, "Etta James was a pioneer. Her ever-changing sound has influenced rock ‘n ’roll, rhythm and blues, pop, soul and jazz artists, marking her place as one of the most important female artists of our time….There is no mistaking the voice of Etta James, and it will live forever” (Nekesa and Jablon n.p).

Etta had several role models, but in her 1995 autobiography, Rage to Survive, which she did with David Ritz, she says her real role model was not a woman, but instead Johnny "Guitar", Watson who could also do all three genres; blues, R&B and jazz and that he had an enormously rich and healthy influence on her, especially in his vocals. Also, she fell under the influences of musicians she revered such as Billie Holiday and those with whom their paths crossed, including Ray Charles, and Chet Baker. Essential to note, is her driving influence from childhood, her mother’s advice that “even if a song has been done a thousand times, you can still bring something of your own to it” (James and Ritz 33).

Song selection analysis

The selected songs from Etta James are Spoonful, A Sunday Kind of Love and At Last.

A Sunday kind of love

The song was written at a time in Etta’s life when she had been involved in a couple of abusive relationships, and she could not seem to find the kind of love that she sang so beautifully about. The theme is that of a deep kind of want and desperation to find something emotionally tangible. Her arrangement is very poetic with stanzas that had five lines each. Her way of singing is emotional, perhaps to exuberate the excessive feeling of need for a selfless kind of love. She performs it in a silky, but subtle smoothened voicing with a slow dance.

I’d rather go blind

The theme is sad and heartbreaking, giving a narrative of her realization of a relationship not working out, but still begging her lover to stay anyway. Notably, it depicts a relationship with two people who feel differently for each other, and the lack of commitment in relationships and marriages at the time around the late 1960s. Thus, it is the desperate and confused feeling of having to accept less just for the sake of staying in a relationship as many would do at the time.

She writes the song in poetic form just as she did in many others, with a four-line approach to every stanza and a final verse that has double the lines. Her performance is emotional and song quality extremely superb both for recording and performance.

At Last

The song was initially written in 1941 by Harry Warren and Gordon. Etta did it in 1960, depicting her poetic kind of approach to lyricism. Her recording was more of live instrumentation and vocals with an emphasis on her raunchy and vast range of vocals. The quality can be termed internationally standardized. The mood of the song is that of triumph, joy, and love. There is the use of imagery and metaphors to convey the intensity of finally achieving a love so desired. Precisely, the theme of triumph made the song selection for Barrack Obama's presidential inauguration.

Etta’s music career

Etta James was an artist that invested almost 60 years into writing and singing songs that came from her life experiences. These were real chapters of her life, making her a significant act to fans who could relate their struggles to hers through songs. She is vital to the society’s understanding that difficult times may vary from one person to another, but it does not mean there are those who do entirely not experience challenges. She was keen on preaching and staying true to the American culture, making her a conveying symbol of pop, jazz, and R&B to the country. She has been quoted as saying, "I want to show that gospel, country, blues, rhythm and blues, jazz, rock ‘n' roll are all just really one thing.” (James and Ritz 4) Those are the American music, and that is the American culture.

She was a women’s rights and capabilities campaigner. Etta states in an interview that she wanted to make an album that was saying a woman is no different than a man. A woman can sing just better songs. She can be just as raunchy and just as weak. And that she likes the whole challenge of a woman standing up there and telling a man where to get off (Carson et al. 44).

She is the link between the old and new of American Blues and is a role model to crucial musicians. Her career inspired the likes of Tina Turner, Gladys Knight, and Candi Staton and into later acts such as Adele, Aguilera and much more who have sampled her songs such as Avicii.


Etta James sets out to be a great musician right from an early age of five. The presence of influential music tutors and producers in her life such as Johnny Otis provided a conducive environment for her career growth which had initially kicked off quite slowly. Even though her personal and musical life were filled with challenges such as a troubled childhood and drug abuse, Etta grew in the music industry to become one of the most influential and celebrated Rhythms and Blues artiste. Her contributions to the entertainment industry have been of great significance to the prevailing music trends in the world today.

Works Cited

Carson, Mina, Tisa Lewis, and Susan M. Shaw. Girls rock! Fifty years of women making music. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2015. Print

James, Etta, and David Ritz. Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story. Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2003. Print

Lipsitz, George. Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Print


Excerpt out of 4 pages


Blues Music. Etta James
University of Michigan
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
blues, music, etta, james
Quote paper
Dr. Amos Wesonga (Author), 2017, Blues Music. Etta James, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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