Twenty years ago today, Etta James received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, an award given to “performers who, during their lifetimes, have made creative contributions of outstanding artistic significance to the field of recording.”
Etta James is one of America’s most beloved singers, with a beautifully rich singing voice that shines across genres; throughout her career, she has sung in the style of R&B, pop, blues, jazz, and even gospel. Etta’s remarkable voice is behind some of the most well-loved songs ever, including “At Last,” “I’d Rather Go Blind,” “A Sunday Kind of Love,” and “All I Could Do Was Cry.”
Etta began vocal training at just five years old. She was performing in R&B clubs in Nashville throughout her childhood and early teenage years. At 12, she formed a girl group, eventually known as the Peaches. Their song “The Wallflower,” which Etta wrote with musician Johnny Otis, was a number one hit, and is still a fan favorite to this day.
After leaving the Peaches, Etta signed with Chess Records…
After leaving the Peaches, Etta signed with Chess Records, becoming one of their earliest major successes. During her time at Chess Records, she released her first solo album, At Last!, which included “A Sunday Kind of Love” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You”.
The songs on this album have a variety of musical influences, from jazz to blues to pop to R&B, showcasing Etta’s range from early on. Just a year later, she released her cover of “At Last,” by Glenn Miller. Her romantic and soulful rendition quickly became the most well-known version of the song, and probably the most iconic and adored song she ever put out. After this, Etta started adding gospel elements to her music, seen in her chart-topping hit “Something’s Got A Hold on Me.”
Etta was portrayed by Beyoncé Knowles in the 2008 film Cadillac Records. Written and directed by Darnell Martin, the film chronicles the history of Chess Records from the early 1940s to the late 1960s.
As FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner states in her review, “Most of the musical numbers (artfully glued together by Terence Blanchard’s subtle background score) still send shivers up and down my spine, and the more I look, the more I see the nuanced character development and carefully crafted period detail.”
Of Beyoncés portrayal of Etta James, Jan says “Beyoncé Knowles and Columbus Short both create indelible characters desperately clinging to their music—lifeboats rocked by emotional storms of inner anguish.”
In 2001, Etta was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and in 2003, she received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Etta continued to perform in concert and release albums throughout the 60s and 70s, receiving a Grammy Award nomination for her album “Tell Mama” in 1973. Though less frequent, she continued to perform and make music throughout her forties and fifties. It was only then that her status as a musical icon was cemented, as her older songs began to be considered true classics. In 2001, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and in 2003, she received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Etta James’ influence on the music industry and the sheer number of hearts that she’s touched with her music cannot be overstated. Her ability to move seamlessly through genres and sound incredible in each one is unmatched.
No amount of critical recognition can truly express Etta’s importance in this world. You can listen to her songs a thousand times and still feel deeply moved every time. Etta’s voice will truly never get old.
© Julia Lasker (2/23/2023) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read more about Etta James on Wikipedia.
Read Jan Lisa Huttner’s review of Cadillac Records here.
Listen to Etta James’s music here.
Watch the Obamas dance to “At Last” (with Beyoncé Knowles singing to them in the background) at their first Inaugural Ball on January 20, 2009. With thanks to Devayr Deva & ABC News for capturing this gorgeous moment on YouTube.
“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: “Etta James mural outside Parkway Theater” by George Kelly is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Middle Photo: Beyoncé Knowles as “Etta James” in Sony BMG Film, Parkwood Pictures and Tristar Pictures’ drama CADILLAC RECORDS.
Bottom Photo: (L to R) Jeffrey Wright, Director Darnell Martin, Adrien Brody and Beyoncé Knowles on the set of Sony BMG Film, Parkwood Pictures and Tristar Pictures’ drama CADILLAC RECORDS.
CADILLAC RECORDS Photo credit: Eric Liebowitz © 2008 Sony BMG Film. All rights reserved.
**ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.