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A Tribute to Etta James
WRITTEN BY DAN CARTERDan Carter is a British journalist and professional writer to the Dance music industry.
To new-found vocal sensation Adele, she was a driving inspiration, while to Disco diva Candi Staton, she was an icon amid a musical industry they both dutifully served. But from the rich heritage of American Soul to her recent inauguration into the timeless arena of Electronic Dance Music, the passing of Etta james at the age of 73-years-old rings as a genuine loss for an industry severely lacking the intrepid backbone that has established Jamesetta Hawkins as one of Soul music’s most tested survivors. After a lengthly battle with Leukemia, her passing not only the loss of a distinct mark in the history of her genre, but another tremendous absence amid a disappearing breed of artist.
Born in 1938 the fatherless daughter of a 14-year-old, her transition from church singer to member of the San Francisco based Creolettes saw Hawkins pave the way in an age where all the odds were against her. She would have to wait until 1994 to receive her first Grammy Award, though a subsequent 2003 lifetime achievement award was thought to be a conciliation for a career that passed over the heads of the mainstream press up until her passing. Her patience, accumulating some 40-years of musical contributions in the process, was yet another impeccable asset to the glowing Californian artist.
The burdens of her career, however, severely threw the reflective resonance of Etta’s beautiful vocal play. Battling with heroin addiction, and then later obesity, her impassioned approach to the Blues was fueled by wave after wave of personal tragedy. The result was simple: when Etta sang the Blues, she meant it with every woeful note of meticulous yet pitch perfect sentimentality . Despite the side-note of woe, this was music that swayed from deep reflection to hip shaking splendor at the click of a finger. That, it seems, was part of Etta’s magical touch upon American music: she could touch any crowd she wanted to.
Etta’s journey, though rife with trials and tribulations at every turn, was essentially a tale of survival. As a standout voice amid the heyday of the American Soul explosion, what transpired through every early recording was the sincerity of her haunting melodies. Driving her past experiences and shortcomings into the root of every woeful melody of uplifting revival of the broken-heart Blues, few would argue that Etta meant every word she sang. From the raunchy exploits of her adaptation of Muddy Water’s ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ to the emotionally redemptive turns of Glen Miller’s ‘At Last’, this was an artist who lived and breathed her musical convictions and who made the music of others her own with little protest from the industry. In the age of decrepit songwriting and auto-tuned exploits, there are few examples of songstress that are worthy of comparison to one of the most influential exploits to popular music.
Having donned that powerful yet intricately supple voice to both Blues and Jazz, Swedish Dance artist Avicii’s extension of her soulful musings to chart-topping club anthem ‘Levels’ marks a somewhat fitting tribute to a legacy that no one with their hearts still rooted in the rich past of sensual vocal music is likely to forget. Mustering an extended awareness to a generation who may have otherwise overlooked Etta’s universal charm, this crucial final endeavor to preserve the beauty of her globally acclaimed vocal forte is sure to shine on for future generations who missed out on the burning character of an Etta James’s music first hand.
Alongside Ray Charles and James Brown, Etta James remains one of those crucial artists that I will always regret having never met. In spite of that regret, all that is left is to preserve the memory of a legacy that encapsulates my understanding of heartfelt Soul and passionate Blues.
Please join me in celebrating the music of an irreplaceable asset to timeless music.