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lime Music feature: RIP Etta James

Lime feature- Music

RIP Etta James

words by

Nicke Adebowale

Reporter: Nicke Adebowale

Etta James, the legendary blues singer died on January 20th aged 73 after a battle with leukaemia. 

She was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25,1938. Her mother, Dorothy Hawkins was just 14 at the time. James started singing at aged five with the St Paul Baptist church choir; she quickly became a popular singing attraction at the church. After years spent in foster care, Dorothy came back and took 12 year old Etta to the Fillmore district in San Francisco.


It was there that James started listening to doo-wop and at age 14 she formed a girl group called Creolettes. Musician Johnny Otis signed the girls (with James forging mothers’ signature on the consent form) and they record ‘Roll with Me Henry’.


The song re-titled ‘Dance with Me, Henry’ (to avoid censorship) was a number 1 hit on the r&b chart, James was just 15. 


In 1959 she signed with Chess records where she was marketed as the ‘Queen of Soul’ and recorded many of her most iconic songs. She had a string of hits including ‘All I Could Do Was Cry’, ‘If I Can’t Have You’, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ and of course her signature song ‘At Last’. A cover of 20 year old Glenn Miller song, James turned it into the must cover for any female singer who dares call herself a diva. Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion and Beyoncé have done memorable versions. 


By the late 1960’s James was addicted to heroin. She slipped into a criminal lifestyle and had done several stints in prison and rehab. James continued to use drugs and it wasn’t until a stay at the Betty Ford clinic in 1988 that James seemed to find lasting sobriety. 


In her later years James still knew how to court controversy. She took it as personal slight when US President Barack Obama asked Beyoncé to perform ‘At Last’ at his inauguration ball. She later dismissed her comments as a joke but at the time James said ‘I can’t stand Beyoncé’. This was particularly unfortunate as Beyoncé had portrayed Etta in the 2008 film ‘Cadillac Records’, a fictional account of the rise and fall of Chess records. Even when offering an apology for her remarks James remained steadfast in her view that she ‘would have sung it better’. As much as I admire Beyoncé as a singer I can’t help but agree. 


Etta James continued to tour until 2010 when diagnosed with dementia and leukaemia she was forced to stop due to her failing health.


Sales of her albums increased by almost 400% following her death. Proof if it were needed that her legacy will continue for many generations to come.


Etta James is survived by her husband of 42 years Artis Mills and her two sons Donto and Sametto.