Published 22/01/2012 | 05:00
Singer who mixed raw power with seductive grace, an electric performer who battled long with her demons
ETTA JAMES, who has died aged 73, could deliver blues, R&B, soul, tender ballads and hard rock with equal conviction; an electric live performer who could be graceful or vulgar by turns, her ability to communicate passion and pain was matched by few singers, black or white.
She once observed: "The hours before noon have never interested me"; and she was indeed a creature of the night, often consorting with pimps and prostitutes, criminals and drag queens. Her idol was Billie Holiday; and like Holiday she became addicted to heroin, also seeing the inside of several prisons and rehab clinics. The men she chose as lovers were often crude, cruel and violent -- "wrong-headed", as she herself described them.
Etta James's salvation was not only her talent; she also had boundless self-confidence. In 1978 she said: "I think I should be like a female Otis Redding; that could go pop and make me queen of rock & roll. There's no female now that can do that; there's no females that pack the power."
Among her classics were the torch song At Last, the hard-driving Tell Mama and the husky lament I'd Rather Go Blind, both recorded in the late Sixties.
Her voice was distinctive for its bruised, seductive quality, but it could also assume a raw power that reflected her combative personality. Once, while recording a television show with Van Morrison, she felt he was hogging the mike: "With one healthy hip bump I knocked him clean across the room, whispering, 'Slack me some room, brother'."
She was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938, to a 14-year-old black American girl called Dorothy -- her father, she always believed, was the famous white pool shark Rudolf 'Minnesota Fats' Wonderone. From the age of five she sang gospel music in the St Paul Baptist church choir in Los Angeles, where she was so promising that she received tuition from James Earle Hines, musical director of the Echoes of Eden choir.
Initially Jamesetta was brought up in Los Angeles by adoptive parents; but when she was 12 her beloved adoptive mother died, and her birth mother took her to live in San Francisco, where she formed a doo-wop trio with two other girls. This became The Creolettes, who were discovered by the LA bandleader Johnny Otis, who put together jazz and R&B revues. By this time she was only 15, and in her own words a "juvenile delinquent, ditching school, hanging out, drinking wine".
Otis took The Creolettes to Los Angeles to make a disc for Modern Records, The Wallflower, which was an immediate hit in the R&B charts.
Otis also inverted Jamesetta's Christian name to create a stage identity, and redesignated the trio as The Peaches. They were soon touring with his revue. In 1955 they recorded Good Rockin' Daddy, another hit, and Etta James bought her first Cadillac.
After the other two girls left The Peaches, Etta continued solo with the Modern label. She toured the southern states, on one occasion sharing a bill with Elvis Presley ("Pleased to meet you, ma'am," he said when they were introduced). She partied with Little Richard and Bo Diddley, and began a relationship with Harvey Fuqua, who had started the doo-wop group The Moonglows.
The Moonglows were with Chess Records in Chicago, and in 1960 she signed to the label too. Leonard Chess had plenty of well-known male artists -- Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Chuck Berry among them -- but was short on girls.
He decided to put Etta James on the staff as a writer and singer. She sang in a duo with Fuqua and toured with a troupe which included a young Marvin Gaye. Leonard Chess viewed Etta James as a fine ballad singer with the potential to break into the pop market, and At Last (1961) became her signature tune.
At around this time she began taking heroin, which was soon to become her drug of choice: "If I felt vulnerable and anxious when I was straight, I felt unapproachable and mellow when I was high," she wrote years later. "I got hooked real quick... In a world where cool meant so much, junk pushed me into the territory of the extra-cool." Also, for the first time in her life she began shedding weight.
In the early 1960s, after hearing Louis Farrakhan preach, Etta James became an 'Honourable Elijah Muhammad Muslim' using the name 'Jamesetta X'. For 10 years she called herself a Muslim, later reflecting: "If I hadn't fallen off the wagon so easily, and so frequently, Islam might have helped me avoid all sorts of problems." At the same time she was associating with drag queens and continuing to use heroin.
On one occasion, in Washington DC, she was so desperate for the money to buy drugs that she pawned her band's instruments.
In New York she took up with a well-known gangster, Red Dillard, who was 40 years her senior. She was sent to Riker's Island after passing a dud cheque; and jailed for four months after being arrested in Chicago for possession of drugs.
According to Etta James, she received no royalties from Chess (she remained with the label until 1976), and she kept going financially by doing gigs in black clubs in the big cities. In 1967 she recorded two of her most famous songs, I'd Rather Go Blind and the searing soul number Tell Mama.
The next year she married Artis Mills, a former pimp, and in 1972 they were arrested in Texas for possession of heroin. Mills chivalrously took the blame, and spent the next 10 years in jail.
Etta James eventually succeeded in kicking her heroin habit, but later became addicted to codeine. In 1988 she stayed for a spell at the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs, and in the same year she recorded, for the Island label, the soul-infused Seven Year Itch (a reference to the fact that this was her first record deal in seven years).
Subsequent albums included Sticking to My Guns; The Right Time, and Etta James 12 Songs of Christmas, released in 1998. In 2003 she released her album Let's Roll, and the following year came up with Blues to the Bone. In 2006 she shifted to an album of pop standards, All the Way.
Etta James published an autobiography, Rage to Survive in 1995. She won countless awards and also had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2008 the singer Beyonce impersonated her in the film Cadillac Records, which chronicled the story of the Chess record label.
Etta James released her final studio album, The Dreamer, in November 2011, a month before doctors announced that she had terminal leukaemia. She had also been suffering from dementia and kidney problems.
She had no children with her husband, Artis Mills, but had two sons from relationships with other men. During her final illness Mills and her two sons fought a battle over the control of her estate but eventually came to an agreement.