She’s been long considered one of the most overlooked Blues and R&B legends that ever lived, though we cannot comprehend why. True vocal royalty Etta James is our Artist in Focus this week, At Last!
A Difficult Start
But the ride was never an easy one for Jamesetta Hawkins. Her life began in 1938 with her 14-year-old mother, spending most of her childhood years in the care of various foster parents. With an incredibly beautiful voice from such a young age - her first professional coaching began when she was only 5 – Etta was often forced by her foster father to perform for their friends. This sadly led to complications with singing on demand that persisted throughout her entire career!
Even that deep, earthy voice that we all know and love comes with its own distressing backstory. Etta suffered physical abuse from her vocal tutor, which is what is thought to have led to her unusually strong voice for her age at the time. Certainly not the start to a singing career, or a life, that anyone would hope for.
But fast forward 50 years to six Grammy Awards, 17 Blues Music Awards and a firm place in every Hall of Fame you could possibly imagine… maybe then you’ll begin to understand how Etta James’s talent and determination prevailed.
Etta James Was Born
Her career began in 1954 after moving to San Francisco and discovering doo-wop, and it was not long after that girl group The Creolettes were born! The group were soon discovered by musician, composer and producer Johnny Otis, the man who would make an Etta James out of a Jamesetta Hawkins.
Johnny signed the band to Modern Records, changed their name to the Peaches, and the hits began to take shape! “The Wallflower” found its way to the number 1 spot on the Hot Rhythm and Blues Tracks chart, an achievement that would land the Peaches the opening slot on Little Richard’s national tour. NOW we’re talking.
The world had to wait until 1960 for the debut solo album from Miss Etta James herself, but boy, was it worth the wait! At Last! contained a mixture of covers, originals, and a few well-loved jazz standards, and Rolling Stone ranked the album at number 119 in their “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list!
It’s impossible to speak of At Last! without a special mention of, that’s right, “At Last”. Originally written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for the 1941 film, Sun Valley Serenade, the song was then made famous by Glenn Miller and his orchestra, who took it to number 2 in the Billboard Pop Music chart. But it wasn’t until Etta James put her unique stamp on the record that it was taken from mildly famous to legendary status.
Despite a modest chart position on its release, the song has really stood the test of time, as has Etta herself. Though her career began in the 1950’s, it wasn’t until the 90’s that she started receiving major awards and wide recognition for her work. With an induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, and Blues Hall of Fame in 2001, there’s no doubt that Etta James made it into many of our personal Hall of Fame too! She is certainly in ours.
“At Last” is featured in our Vocals Grade 8 books and is ready and waiting for you. It has since been covered by, and charted with(!), artists like Celine Dion and Beyoncé. Perhaps it’s you that will be next?