5 Lessons From Etta James, Through Song And Life


Published on January 23, 2012

"Lessons" "73" "Jamesetta Hawkins"

Etta James is known as the gritty voice that slapped sense into the dumb, healed broken hearts, and made a grown man cry; all while bridging the gap between rhythm & blues and rock & roll.  Now resting in peace at 73 as of this past Friday (January 20, 2012), James left us with over 60 years of treasures to cherish.  While the movie Cadillac Records loosely documents a span the 18 years James spent signed to Chess Records following her initial fame, it doesn’t serve over half the span of her life (nor does it tell the complete truth).  Beyond her autobiography, “Rage to Survive,” the most important truths of her life, in fact, were all written within her songs.  From drug habits to her hard-headed choices in men, she lived it all (brutally, sometimes) but sang it all so elegantly.  If you want to get to the heart of Etta, you have to listen to Etta.

 “TELL MAMA”; 1968

One of Etta James’ least favorites of all time, it was also one of her seventh most successful hit, reaching #20 on Pop Charts and #10 for R&B.  Possibly, if the song had been more emotional than conversational, it would have resonated with the songstress more positively.  Etta James, who was born to a 14-year-old mother, grew up with pain and confusion in a foster home.  Later in life, she expressed her gratefulness:

“I always knew I had this good-looking, you know, high-stepping mom, and she was like only 14 years older than me… She was just a child. What would she have done with me?” [Source]

But the song isn’t about her mother.  Instead, it’s more-so a call for women to sing to men that they are the answer to all of their problems.  James referred to it as, “the gal you come to for comfort and easy sex.”  She wasn’t a fan.  Even so, the song was admired by other greats to follow, such as Janis Joplin, and feels a lot like the original, much more subtle source of Beyonce’s “Suga Mama.”


It’s been said that the first time Chess Records’ founder, Leonard Chess, heard this song, he left the room crying.  (Unfortunately, Chess and James were actually never sexually and scandalously involved, as the semi-fictional biopic depicts.)  Penned by Etta James and Ellington Jordan, the song took on two different versions.

For Jordan, who was incarcerated at the time, the song was about “ losing and being down.”  He didn’t know when was getting out, and his hope for life was fading.  For James, the song was about her continuous battle with being blind in her “love life,” and her “personal ways” of dealing with it. [Source]

To this day, the 2-and-a-half minute ballad continues to rip at your heart with every act of organ and horn in the background.


Competing with the gritty and raw sound of Blaxploitation movie themes, this song held much more weight than her competitor’s similar sounds from Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, and the like at that time.  Mixing funk with life and pain, Etta  reminisced about the decade she struggled with her addictions and knew it was a necessary feat through song.

“I don’t do that stuff any more,” she said. “It’s nothing to brag about and it’s nothing to complain about. But my feeling, in my heart and my mind, is still attached to that kind of stuff.” [Source]

The song came just a few months after she had decided to leave drugs behind for good.  It served as both a reminder, and a reason to commit to her new-found, clean self.  ”She bounced checks, forged prescriptions and stole from her friends. A judge finally gave her a choice: prison or rehabilitation. In 1974, she spent months in recovery at a psychiatric hospital.”[Source]


Reminiscent to the sound that catapulted Ray Charles to the top, the established sounds of Etta James scored another R&B sensational hit at #4 on R&B charts, making the top 40 for the Pop charts as well.  Mixing her gospel fervor with her powerful vocals and immaculate range shouts about her happiness in love.

In 2006, Christina Aguilera met and sang alongside Etta James before reproducing the song in 2010.  Aguilera having idolized James, swooned when the blues and soul legend told her how she reminded her of herself: “hotheaded.”

“She reminds me of myself when I was young,” she said. “I’ve always been a complainer, too, that’s what I liked about her. The bad-girl syndrome was a controversy then, but that was always the hip thing. Everybody wanted to be the bad girl!” [Source]


More successful than “At Last,” and more detrimentally unstabling than “I’d Rather Go Blind,” this song was a mixture of doo-wop and r&b.  Said to have been written about her former boyfriend, Harvey Fuqua, who was ironically dating the co-writer (Billy Davis’) ex-girlfriend, there’s no question as to how the lyrics came out so brilliantly devastating.  The delivery, nonetheless, came out so effortlessly painful and a scandalous topic that topped the billboard charts to #33, and #2 for all of r&b.


Etta James, born Jamestta Hawkins, has a song for every occasion; every heartbreak and every love-sake.  She sang of life, of pain, of love and of loss.  And will be missed for more reasons than fame, but for the fortune she’s leaving behind.

“When I sing for myself, I probably sing for anyone who has any kind of hurt, any kind of bad feelings, good feelings, ups and downs, highs and lows, that kind of thing” –Etta James


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