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!
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • 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.