ETTA JAMES – AT LAST!
Released: November 15, 1960 – 55 years ago
The studio debut by soul-blues legend, Etta James, stands as one of the artist’s best, most commercially successful, and varied releases, showcasing blues, r&b, and jazz standards. Vocally astounding, James can move from powerful growls to delicate, airy phrasing. A true classic that helped shape soul, r&b, and pop for well over a decade.
The Classic Pick is a weekly feature at 4pm M-F on The Home Stretch, sponsored by the Good Oak Bar and curated by Kris Kerry. Each Monday at 4pm Kris stops by KXCI’s studio to give us insight on this classic album at 91.3FM and kxci.org.
Few female r&b artists enjoyed the consistent acclaim Etta James did through a career that spanned six decades (late 50s-2012). Possessing one of the most powerful voices in music, she has been referred to as “the greatest of all blues singers” by some critics, and has written some of the most iconic songs ever recorded, such as “Tell Mama,” “I’d Rather Go Blind,” and this album’s title track, “At Last.”
Scoring over 30 r&b hits over the years, James led a rough life easily suitable for a movie biopic, battling heroin and painkiller addiction, bad relationships and a variety of health and legal problems (mostly due to heroin addiction). She didn’t know her father, but it was suspected by her and her young mother (who was only 14 when James was born) that professional pool player Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone was her father. She went steady with B.B. King when she was only 16 years old (he was in his late 20s). Some believe King’s song “Sweet Sixteen” is about the young Etta James.
James, born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938, was only 22 years old when At Last! was recorded. Prior to signing with Chess records in 1960, she spent the late 50s touring small clubs. Phil and Leonard Chess (Chess Records founders) are credited as album producers. They believed that James had “crossover” pop potential and paid for the orchestral arrangements on many of the album’s tracks.
At Last! incorporated r&b passion, a jazz polish, and pop-rock song structure. Since its release, it has garnered praise by critics far and wide, and it helped to shape r&b, soul, pop for the rest of the 1960s. It produced four top five r&b singles, and is ranked at number 119 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
James was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, received 6 Grammy Awards, numerous Grammy nominations, and in 2003 she was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (fewer than 200 artists have ever received this award).
Etta James was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2008, was hospitalized with a MRSA related infection in 2010, and was diagnosed w/ Leukemia in 2011 which killed her within a year. She died January of 2012.