The Arty Semite

RIP Etta James

By Dan Friedman

  • Print
  • Share Share
getty images

Etta James — Miss Peaches — she of the effortlessly earthy voice that wrapped itself around any style, passed away aged 73 on January 20, after a long struggle with illness.

Born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938 she moved from singing at her Baptist Church in Los Angeles to singing with Johnny Otis at age 14. But her later fame might never have come about without her turbulent relationship — later portrayed in “Cadillac Records” by Beyonce and Adrien Brody — with Leonard Chess, of the infamous Chess Records, with whom she signed, aged 22.

In her 1995 autobiography, “The Rage To Survive” James describes her relationship with Chess in this way:

He put me on staff — as a writer and singer — and paid my room and board. Already that was more than Modern had ever done. I’m not saying Leonard was 100 percent kosher. Sure he ripped off copyrights. He f**ked you on royalties. Business was plenty funky back then. Still is. But for a kid like me, Leonard was the man who kept me from starving or having to work at the five-and-dime. He could be cranky and short-tempered. Other artists will tell you plenty of Leonard Chess stories. Far as I’m concerned, though, he wasn’t all bad. As time went on — and as I went off the deep end — he proved his loyalty. I liked him.

This relationship was not ideal, but typical for the time. James had ended up at Chess after leaving Modern Records, run by the Jewish Bihari brothers (Lester, Sam and Jules) and she felt some fondness for the place. Buzzy Jackson, in “A Bad Woman Feeling Good: Blues and the Women Who Sing Them,” quotes James, who never knew her real father, saying.

Leonard Chess was like a father to me. He took care of my problems and bought me a new Cadillac. He’d give me a little money now and then… It didn’t matter about all the other monies due you, so long as you had your Cadillac and enough money to keep you going.

James stayed with Chess Records from 1960 to 1975, long after the death of Leonard Chess in 1969. Throughout the 1960s her particular bridge between R&B and soul made her Chess’s major female artist, in the words of John Collis, (“The Story of Chess Records”) “the biggest star among them” Despite some wonderful recordings after that time for Warner Brothers, MCA and Island, it was her Chess recordings upon which her legend was founded.

Watch Etta James sing the 1962 hit ‘Something’s Got a Hold On Me’:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: leonard chess, chess records, etta james

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.