Soul and blues singer Etta James has died at the age of 73. She was rarely in the pop charts, although her biggest success – her cover of Muddy Waters‘ ‘I just want to make love to you’ – reached number 5 in Britain in 1996, but that was on the back of its inclusion in a Diet Coke advertisement:
Various reports around the web (including the BBC one to which I link above) give accounts of her life and music, so I won’t repeat that here. Suffice to say that she was born into disadvantage, like many early soul stars she began singing in church, she was only intermittently successful in her career and she had to conquer a long addiction to heroin. Not all her music was as brassy, bold and lustful as ‘I just want to make love to you.’ The song that became a wedding favourite, ‘At last’, was lush and gentle, with supper club overtones:
‘I’d rather go blind’ was poignant and melancholy, in the Southern Soul tradition:
Etta James was one who never reached superstardom. She flew just under the radar for much of her career. Occasionally she was recognised. In the last few years that happened in the wake of Beyoncé‘s portrayal of her in the 2008 film ‘Cadillac Records‘.
Most of us spend our lives flying under the radar, barely or fleetingly recognised. Fame and fortune are no ways to sustain life and self-esteem, but lack of affirmation can destroy it, too. I guess when Etta James was singing in her grandparents’ Baptist church, she heard a message about a God who loved her dearly. In the end, there is nothing better to sustain any of us than the knowledge that we are loved with an everlasting love. Even Jesus evidently needed to hear that message at his baptism.
So rest in peace, Ms James. You had soul. We heard it. You were loved. We all are.