By Bob Hicks
Something’s Got a Hold on Me. Etta James, that incredible American voice, died today from cancer at age 73, and although she urged us to “Don’t Cry Baby,” a few collective tears are going to tumble down.
Etta touched on blues and country and rhythm & blues and soul – pretty much most of the traditional popular song forms – and distinguished herself in all of them. She lived hard, on purpose, and sometimes fell over the edge, then scrambled back and added a little more of the scrape and grit she’d landed in to her already astonishing sound. “My mother always wanted me to be a jazz singer, but I always wanted to be raunchy,” she wrote in her memoir.
She was a walking, talking myth: She thought her daddy might have been the pool hustler Minnesota Fats, though she didn’t know for sure, and apparently, neither did he. She seemed to sing from some vital contradiction in the American spirit: how could a voice be at once so smudged and raw and pure? Johnny Otis, who died on Tuesday at age 90, discovered her, but no one could hold on to her. Dementia caught up with her in her final years. It couldn’t hold on, either. Today, Etta’s free.
Photo: Louis Ramirez, 2000, Flickr/Wikimedia Commons; Etta in San Jose.