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Lani Jackson

Lani Jackson

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Though now considered an icon of R&B, Etta James was largely overlooked for much of her life and career. Born Jamesetta Hawkins and raised in Los Angeles, she suffered physical abuse from within and outside her family, and turned to singing as a refuge. Moving to San Francisco as a young teenager, she formed a group called the Creolettes and scored a minor hit with "Work With Me Henry" (which became a bigger hit when Georgia Gibbs covered it), Johnny Otis and Little Richard both took her on tour, and she was linked romantically with both B.B. King (who she believed wrote "Sweet Sixteen" about her) and Moonglows frontman turned producer Harvey Fuqua. The latter brought her to the Chess label where she did her most acclaimed work between 1960-70. Branching out from a straight R&B format, Fuqua added orchestration to her records and brought in stronger jazz and gospel elements, recognizing James as a great ballad singer. The title track of her first album for the label, At Last was only a minor hit at the time, but later became her signature song. Further landmarks included an aptly titled 1963 live album, Etta James Rocks the House, and her 1965 song "I'd Rather Go Blind," which became an oft-covered...

Though now considered an icon of R&B, Etta James was largely overlooked for much of her life and career. Born Jamesetta Hawkins and raised in Los Angeles, she suffered physical abuse from within and outside her family, and turned to singing as a refuge. Moving to San Francisco as a young teenager, she formed a group called the Creolettes and scored a minor hit with "Work With Me Henry" (which became a bigger hit when Georgia Gibbs covered it), Johnny Otis and Little Richard both took her on tour, and she was linked romantically with both B.B. King (who she believed wrote "Sweet Sixteen" about her) and Moonglows frontman turned producer Harvey Fuqua. The latter brought her to the Chess label where she did her most acclaimed work between 1960-70. Branching out from a straight R&B format, Fuqua added orchestration to her records and brought in stronger jazz and gospel elements, recognizing James as a great ballad singer. The title track of her first album for the label, At Last was only a minor hit at the time, but later became her signature song. Further landmarks included an aptly titled 1963 live album, Etta James Rocks the House, and her 1965 song "I'd Rather Go Blind," which became an oft-covered R&B standard. The latter was originally the B-side of "Tell Mama" which also became a famous tune after Janis Joplin covered it. The hits trailed off in the '70s as she got into harder funk, and despite some notable performances-- including a 1978 slot with the Rolling Stones-- she never achieved crossover success. Drugs and alcohol, along with a troubled love life, derailed her career by the mid '70s and she was largely off the radar for the following decade, spending much of 1974-75 inside a psychiatric hospital. Her comeback began with the 1989 album with the renowned Muscle Shoals studio crew, Seven Year Itch, whose title referred to her previous years without a recording contract. Now clean and healthy, she was giving powerful shows and was newly embraced as a rediscovered roots artist. She remained visible for the next two decades, with a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inauguration in 1993. Her Chess material was reissued and rediscovered, and she recorded a wide range of new material including a Billie Holiday tribute album in 1994 and a Christmas album in 1998. The 2008 film Cadillac Records, a fictionalized Chess story in which James was portrayed by Beyonce Knowles, enhanced James' profile and made "Al Last"a hit again; however James bristled when the invitation to perform the song at Barack Obama's inauguration went to Knowles and not her. Her final album The Dreamer came out in November 2011 and included a surprise cover of Guns 'n;' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle."By them she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and leukemia, and she died two months after the album;'s release, on the eve of her 74th birthday.

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