Etta James

TrackSingle / Album
The WallflowerModern 45x947
All I Could Do Was CryArgo 5359
At LastArgo 5380
I Just Want To Make Love To YouArgo 5380
Something's Got A Hold On MeArgo 5409
Tell MamaCadet 5578
I'd Rather Go BlindCadet 5578
Almost PersuadedCadet 5630
Lil’ Red RoosterBlues To The Bone
Cigarettes & CoffeeThe Dreamer

Embed from Getty Images


Etta James playlist



Contributor: Dave Stephens … with assistance from Cal Taylor

“Etta James was the first really big female soul singer to emerge and she paved the way for others like Mary Wells at Motown and Aretha Franklin at Atlantic. And she might just have been the best of the lot.” (Dave Stephens from “RocknRoll”)

“Aretha’s her competition, too – even today, James’s voice is a wonder, so gritty it’s filthy and so sweet it’s filthier than that.” (Robert Christgau, review of The Chess Box)


Roll With Me Henry aka The Wallflower

… released on Modern Records of L.A. in January 1955 to an unsuspecting world. Credited to Etta James and “The Peaches”, it opened with an uncredited Richard Berry uttering the plea, “Hey Baby, what do I have to do / To make you love me too?”. Whereupon Etta entered alongside a raunchy beat banishing Berry & Peaches to an answering role. They knew their place!

You got to roll with me Henry
(Alright baby)
Roll with me Henry
(Don’t mean maybe)

The record was an ‘answer disc’ to Work With Me Annie from the Midnighters (later to be renamed, Hank Ballard And The Midnighters). That record, which had unusually explicit sexual lyrics for the time, hit the number one spot on the nation’s R&B Chart in 1954 and stayed there for seven weeks. It also spawned a couple of answer records from the Midnighters themselves before Ms. James and The Peaches appeared on the scene; their song was originally entitled Roll With Me Henry but that title “was considered too risqué to play on pop radio stations” (Wiki). The alternative chosen was The Wallflower which appears nowhere in the lyrics. To add insult to injury, white singer Georgia Gibbs recorded a toned-down version of the song, retitled as Dance With Me Henry, and it sold well to the white public, hitting #1 in Billboard and #3 in Cashbox. Etta’s achievement wasn’t to be sneered at though; like Hank & the boys, she too hit the top of the R&B Chart and held that position for four weeks.

Etta James, who was born Jamesetta Hawkins, was 16 when she cut the record. It was her first.

She stayed at Modern for the best part of five years. The success of Wallflower was nearly repeated by Good Rockin’ Daddy, arguably her best rocker for the label, which hit the #6 position in the R&B Chart later in ’55, but after that, nothing. It could be that Modern plus their Kent subsidiary rather typecast Etta as the Good Rockin’ Lassie, more often than not deployed on uptempo stuff utilising the dancing metaphor for you know what. Which was OK – check out records like That’s All and Tough Lover – and very few other labels were doing this with female artists but those records didn’t match the excitement of Little Richard platters or the inventiveness of discs from Chuck Berry.

What Modern didn’t seem to take much notice of was the stirrings of a form of music, or a form of R&B even, that we would eventually call soul. In ’55 when Etta started on her career, only Ray Charles of the soul pioneers had made a disc that you could put that label on– I’ve Got A Woman in December ’54. However, by 1960 he’d been joined by names like James Brown and Bobby Bland so the lack of much experimentation along these lines by Modern is a bit surprising. There is one track, though, that emerged from her (on Modern subsidiary, Kent) in 1960, How Big A Fool which had the broad structure of a pre-soul ballad if a bit on the bouncy side. And it had strings. Was this prescient? Maybe it was too little, too late.

Enter Leonard Chess, stage left. In reality we are told that Harvey Fuqua (at that time, lead singer of the Moonglows) was instrumental in Etta’s label switch to Chess/Argo. He had appeared with Etta on record, taking the male role on a Betty & Dupree single, for Kent in February, ’59 (and we’re reliably informed that there were far more important things happening between them than making records). The pair would also go on to appear on a couple of singles for Argo as Etta And Harvey, on which, more later.

We’re also informed that Leonard had a vision which would see Etta cosily ensconced in the pop charts and Chess Records reaping the financial rewards. Etta’s record #1 for Leonard which came out on the Chess subsidiary, Argo in March, 1960, must have achieved everything that both wanted for a starter and possibly more. That record was All I Could Do Was Cry and its title allows me to offer a kind of neat description of the Leonard Chess approach: Etta would do her weepy thing up front (and there would be a lot of soaring & sweeping and drama in general involved, which we’d never heard at Modern) and Leonard, or to be more precise, his arranger would flood the record with saccharine via strings & backing ladies, and voila, a hit. Of course it helped to have a decent song which is where Berry Gordy came in. He’d already put Jackie Wilson on the map with Reet Petite back in ’57 and showed that he was no slouch at knocking out a ballad (along with his usual collaborators) with Jackie’s follow-up, To Be Loved. The writers for All I Could Do Was Cry are listed as Berry Gordy, his sister, Gwen Gordy and record producer and regular song writing collaborator, Roquel “Billy” Davis.

All of which might sound a tad cynical but it worked. Well it works on me and IMHO the record is still as good or better than anything the redoubtable lady cut at Chess with but a small handful of honourable exceptions.

Leonard wasn’t averse to changing elements of the approach as Etta’s Chess career progressed. At Last gave Etta a happy ending (and beginning, and middle) but it still attracted the paying punters. This time the song was an oldie with Glenn Miller associations but it never quite achieved the level of a ‘standard’, that is until Etta got her hands on it. It formed the title of her debut album and got adopted by her as her signature song. Christina Aguilera sang the number at Etta’s funeral in 2012 and, apparently, she now performs it in honour of Etta, at all her concerts. (source, Wiki).

The track was played at the wedding of someone quite dear to me so it was hardly going to be one I would ignore for the Ten.

I also can’t ignore the flip, I Just Want To Make Love To You, though I was tempted due to its rather ubiquitous nature and the fact that I’ve always been enamoured with the Muddy Waters original from my treasured US pressing of The Best Of Muddy Waters LP. As readers are likely to know, the song took on a totally new life after its usage in an ad campaign for Diet Coke which kicked off in the US in 1994 and reached our shores in ’96. Hence Etta’s solitary appearance in February that year at #5 in our Pop Chart. It didn’t do badly across Europe either. If there’s anyone out there not familiar with the ad (it was the first of a series), this is it.

‘Make Love To You’ wasn’t alone in being a diversion from ballads. Etta’s first year at Chess saw a couple of sexually charged rockers, If I Can’t Have You and the mighty Wolf’s Spoonful released under the name “Etta And Harvey” (with Harvey being the gent we’ve already come across) and both saw chart action. The first benefited from a fine arrangement with sections of raw soul ballad contrasting with out-and-out raunch (and a randy sax player offering encouragement just like in the Modern days).

Harvey’s role in the creation of the “New Etta” shouldn’t be ignored. In his essay on Etta in “Let The Good Times Rock”, Bill Millar quotes her as saying “We sat up all night side by side. Harvey had one of those little Wurlitzer pianos and a book of a hundred standards. We’d get it out every night and he’d play the changes to all those different old songs”. Millar goes on to comment:

“Etta’s voice and material underwent considerable change. A natural contralto she’d been afraid to be anything but basic; under Fuqua’s tutelage, she began to sing higher, ornamenting her style with a variety of tricks from the smooth phrasing of a Sinatra (‘I was trying to be bourgeois’) to the wild abandon of the Baptist Church.”

Chess kept a weather eye on what was happening elsewhere in black music. 1962’s Something’s Got A Hold On Me incorporated gospel marinaded ladies in call and response mode but what caught the attention first was Etta’s splendiferous intro; she really had a way with such things but never forgot to keep the interest level high throughout a number.

Ballads never went away, be they gutbucket/primitive like Stop The Wedding which revisited the All I Could Do Was Cry theme but added adrenaline, or near blues in theme but near lounge in original musical context like Sunday Kind Of Love, or sophisticated like Don’t Cry Baby or country soul like It Makes No Difference Now. Any of these could have made the Ten.

The hits eased off roughly around the mid-sixties mark which will, in part, probably have been due to Etta’s growing heroin addiction though is just as likely to have been caused by changing tastes in music within the American public – the Brit invasion of course, ruined many a career in the US. However, that heroin addiction cannot be ignored. An article on Etta and the FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, says “the years prior to 1967 had found her forging prescriptions, bouncing checks, and stealing from friends to finance her habit. James’s career was suffering and something needed to change.”

We are told – ref that same article – that it was Leonard Chess himself who instigated the move to record Etta at Muscle Shoals under the supervision of producer Rick Hall, who with his team, had already delivered hits for the likes of Clarence Carter, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett.

The first fruits of their labour came with the release of the double A-sided disc, Tell Mama / I’d Rather Go Blind in October 1967. The A-side had originally been cut by Clarence Carter under the title Tell Daddy at the FAME Studio in ’66 and it was Hall who put it forward for recording (apparently to rejections from Etta – see Wiki on the song). As we all know, she was wrong. From that brass intro on, it worked. The original song was good but the James female version bettered it. Yes it was a (gospel oriented) jumper but a jumper with a non-trivial theme.

The B-side bettered even Tell Mama but I’ll let Dave Marsh (in “The Heart Of Rock & Soul”) proffer the praise: “Although she came from California by way of Chess in Chicago, Etta sang those Muscle Shoals blues like she’d been born to them. Of course, the fact that the song provides a great metaphor for her drug addiction intensifies the story, even if lyrical discretion requires replacing smack with booze.”

Tell Mama (since it was the A-side) registered a #10 in the R&B Chart and #23 in the Hot 100. This was the first time she’d hit the Hot 100 since a rather measly 65 had been achieved (for Loving You More Every Day) in 1964. Both tracks appear, in positions 1 and 2 respectively, in the album Tell Mama containing the FAME Studio tracks and released in 1968.

Etta had already put her toe into that crossover genre we call Country Soul with It Makes No Difference Now, mentioned earlier, and would do so again in later years; have a listen to the Louvin Brothers’
When I Stop Dreaming from the Etta James Sings Funk (1970) LP. However, if I was asked to pick one example of Etta with a stetson on I’d go for the Rick Hall produced, Almost Persuaded. The confessional style suits her and when the gospel choir come in near the 1:30 mark, those hairs on the back of your neck start standing up.

Last night, all alone at a party
I met a man with a drink in his hand
He had soft brown eyes and coal black hair
And a smile that a girl could understand

The song was written by Billy Sherill & Glenn Sutton and originally recorded by David Houston. On release in 1966 it went to the #1 position in the Billboard Country Chart and stayed there for 9 weeks. The disc also won a Grammy Award for best Country & Western Recording of 1966. It’s attracted plenty of covers but Etta was the first to take the song into soul territory.

Leonard Chess was very happy to utilise the LP format in order to keep the revenue flowing. Pop albums in those days featured hits, B-sides and whatever else happened to be lying on the cutting room floor. But that debut set I mentioned was notable for the inclusion of a fine Stormy Weather, and by LP #2, The Second Time Around, the proportion of standards and near-standards had gone up. LP #4, Etta James Sings For Lovers, was almost totally devoted to oldies with only the odd nod to current singles. The fifth and sixth albums in the series, Queen Of Soul and Call My Name, were aiming in the direction that got fully (and gloriously) realised by Tell Mama in 1968. These remarks are applicable only to her studio albums; the year 1964 saw the release of an excellent live set entitled Etta James Rocks The House which built on the success of tracks like Something’s Got A Hold On Me (which is included). In amongst the more boisterous stuff were slowies like All I Could Do Was Cry and a fine rendition of B.B. King’s Sweet Little Angel.

Her final two Chess studio albums were entrusted to a non-Chess production/arrangement team led by Gabriel Mekler. The latter was a trained musician who had got into production earlier in the sixties via records for Steppenwolf (these included the single, Born To Be Wild), Three Dog Night and, of more relevance here, Janis Joplin – he was responsible for her first solo album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!. The James albums were Etta James (also known as Only A Fool, in 1973) and Come A Little Closer (1974).

Etta James delighted the critics. Quint Kik, the AllMusic reviewer, said “Etta James’ third album after the Muscle Shoals tour de force of Tell Mama presents a genius makeover to attract white rock fans who had been left awestruck by Janis Joplin.” That said there were tracks present which wouldn’t necessarily appeal to existing fans, such as, not one, but three Randy Newman numbers. (I hasten to add that I have nothing against Randy but this could have scared off the Etta blues freaks.) But in contrast there were some excellent soul offerings including a very fine reading of Otis Redding’s Just One More Day – she was a Redding nut and would continue to be seen as such throughout her career. For me, and Mr. Kik, the highlight from the set was Down So Low, a song from Tracy Nelson which first saw the light of day on the LP, Living With The Animals from Mother Earth, a group with Ms Nelson as their lead singer (and which album I used to own). This one very nearly got into the Ten but eventually lost out, in part because I still hold the Mother Earth track in some reverence (she also cut at least one non-group version). Come A Little Closer had a similar mix of material and, as such was less of a surprise than Etta James. Its highlights were probably the wordless (but intriguing) Feeling Uneasy and another Newman song (though known also from a Lee Hazlewood version), Let’s Burn Down The Cornfield. That adjective, ‘intriguing’ is equally applicable here. Cal has unearthed an article from the Old Time Music site which attempts to put meaning to the metaphors and identify their symbolism.

Prior to the recording of the above pair of albums, Etta and her husband, Artis Mills, were arrested for heroin possession. Mills received a 10-year jail sentence. Etta didn’t get a sentence but was placed in the Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital for seventeen months starting in 1974. (Source: the Renaissance Theatre article on Etta)

After a final album, Etta left Chess in 1977 although by then the label had largely folded after its sale to GRT in 1972 with the death of Leonard coming in October that same year. The tail end of the seventies saw Etta produced by a couple of big names in the recording industry, Jerry Wexler with Deep In The Night (1978) for Warner, and Allen Toussaint with Changes (1980) for MCA. Neither album was striking though the former did include a romping read of Hank W’s Lovesick Blues plus a revisit to I’d Rather Go Blind, entitled Blind Girl.

And that was almost that for the decade. Etta largely became a forgotten name not helped by continuing drug issues. She had featured on the Stones US Tour in ’78 but that was a distant memory by the time her next album, Seven Year Itch came out (on Island), in 1988. Behind the producer’s console this time was Barry Beckett, a man who had been in the session team – he played organ – on the Muscle Shoals sessions. Some of the other names from those sessions were also present along with Jim Horn and Steve Cropper. It’s a good album and certainly deserves mention in the same sentence as Tell Mama. Regrettably though, unlike the bulk of Etta’s post-Chess albums, it’s not available via Spotify. There are a few tracks on YT including the Bobby Charles written The Jealous Kind which impresses me so much that it would have been in the Ten but for its Spotify exclusion. The song is so good it got covered by Ray Charles, Joe Cocker and Delbert McClinton (see Footnotes); they know a good song when they hear one. This is it below; see what you think:

Seven Year Itch undoubtedly started Etta on the comeback trail though this would mainly have been due to a somewhat more mature audience who were after blues – she was seen as the blues lady – plus sixties/seventies soul and older songs with more of a jazzy flavour. Unlike younger blacks who were into current R&B, rap and hip hop. The albums started flowing at a rate of almost one a year up until Blues To The Bone in 2004 after which the gaps grew.

Several of her albums gained awards – see Footnotes – though it has to be said that you never knew what was coming next. There were five jazzy oldies albums which kicked off with Mystery Lady: Songs Of Billie Holiday (on Private) in 1994. The backroom boys for the session were John Snyder (producer) and Cedar Walton (pianist & arranger) and they looked after all the follow-up sessions in this style which were scattered over the years up to Blue Gardenia in 2001. I don’t profess to be qualified on the merits of these performances; the tracks slip down well but there are times when I wish that she’d let just a little more of her gospel side show through.

Jerry Wexler came back for a straight ahead sixties soul album The Right Time in 1992 and it sounded pretty much like you would have expected it to but without the timeless quality of some of his Atlantic work. There were two more Barry Beckett productions, Stickin’ To My Guns (1990) and Love’s Been Rough On Me (1997). Both were very good with the second containing a highly credible I’ve Been Loving You Too Long. Another ‘series’ started with Life, Love And The Blues in 1998 which was credited to Etta herself as producer, though it’s possible she might have had some help from sons Sametto (who was on bass) and Donto (drums); both appeared in assistant or properly credited producer roles on later albums (sometimes with guitarist Josh Sklair). The first of these was Matriarch Of The Blues (in the year 2000). It contained a mix of rock, R&B and soul, opening with a full-throated motorcycle roar before Etta delivers a full-throated Gotta Serve Somebody (originally from you know who and the best version I’ve heard of the song). The public liked the album – #2 in the nation’s Blues Chart – but critics were divided. Robert Christgau wrote “From Big Mama Thornton to Shemekia Copeland, no woman has sung such material with more power” but only gave the album a B+.

Etta’s final three albums warrant several words each. All three were produced by the James family with Josh Sklair.

2004’s Blues To The Bone was precisely what it said on the tin: blues throughout, which you can’t say about any of its predecessors. And while at least half of the numbers could be perceived as old warhorses, Etta and her team manage to bring a quite surprising degree of freshness to every single one. I’ve selected the Wolf’s Lil’ Red Rooster (which Etta and band take at an even slower pace than the original) as track #9 in my Ten but it was a battle between that and Elmore’s The Sky Is Crying.

All The Way was recorded in 2004 and released in 2005. I guess the best (if simplified) description of it is hit parade pop but from a very wide timeframe and that shouldn’t preclude names like Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Prince. I find myself in agreement with most of the words written by Thom Jurek in his AllMusic review of the set. One of his closing comments is: “Despite her best intentions and the authority of her voice, All the Way is far from perfect”. It’s not all bad by any means and I did note some very positive opinions expressed by Amazon commentators. For anyone wishing to dig further I’d warn that All The Way is not on Spotify but the full album is on YT.

I made the comment earlier that Etta “was a Redding nut and would continue to be seen as such throughout her career”. After writing that I found an interview with her conducted by Billboard, published on 11th August 2001. On being asked “Who are your favourite songwriters”, she responds with “Little Milton, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Otis Redding. You notice that most of my albums have a tune by Otis”.

Her final album, The Dreamer, was released in November 2011, not much more than two months before her death. The album contained one number associated with Little Milton, two with Watson and two with Redding plus tracks originally from Ray Charles, Bobby Bland and the song Misty Blue usually with the name Dorothy Moore attached to it. Etta knew this was going to be her last album; these were her songs, performed as only Etta could perform them. It seemed fitting to make the final selection, “a tune by Otis”, Cigarettes & Coffee:

And while I can see eyebrows raised at the inclusion of Guns N’ Roses’ Welcome To The Jungle in the album, I would refer the reader to a comment from Elephant Jungle on the news of Etta’s death:

“I was so sad to hear of the passing of Etta James. Her voice was like butter but she was also a long-time humanitarian and an eternal beautiful soul. My Facebook news feed has been full of Etta goodies today, and this one was too good not to share. I think it’s pretty bad ass of her to take a song like Welcome to the Jungle and own it. Enjoy!”




1. She was born Jamesetta Hawkins on 25th January 1938 in Los Angeles. Much of her youth was spent with foster parents due to the frequent absence of her mother. Her father hasn’t been identified. However, versions of the following statement from Wiki appear in many biographic pieces: “James speculated that she was the daughter of pool player Rudolph “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone, whom she met briefly in 1987”. This is something that Wanderone’s widow has stated that her husband had denied.

Not only did she immerse herself in gospel music from an early age, she actually received professional vocal training from the musical director of the Echoes of Eden Choir from the St. Paul Baptist Church. On the secular side, she picked up influences like Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington and started singing in a group called the Creolettes (named that way due to the members’ light skins). They later underwent a name change to the Peaches.

The group including Jamesetta were discovered by, surprise, surprise, Johnny Otis. We are told (Wiki etc.) that she was 14 at the time. This eventually led to a record contract with Modern in 1954. It was Otis, apparently, who was responsible for the name change to the rather more catchy Etta James. Which takes us up to the main text.

Etta died on the 20th January 2012 of leukemia. Her death came three days after that of Johnny Otis.

2. As usual I have used 45cat for the source on Etta’s singles but for albums, bearing in mind that her album career was large and complex (though I don’t make reference to every one), I’ve used the Wiki discography with side reference to Discogs. The vast bulk of her studio albums including certain key compilations, both on Modern and on Chess, are on Spotify. Where I’ve made an album reference and this isn’t the case, I’ve attempted to point it out.

3. Richard Berry was an L.A., based singer, songwriter and musician. He was a member of many doo wop groups including the Penguins, the Cadets, the Flairs and the Robins – he was the man who provided the bass voice for Riot In Cell Block #9. He was also the man who supplied the (uncredited) male voice in the duet with Etta on The Wallflower and its follow-ups. However, Richard’s main claim to fame is being the person who wrote and recorded (as lead singer of Richard Berry and the Pharoahs), Louie Louie in 1957. The song didn’t become a mega-hit until the side was rereleased and a version emerged from the Kingsmen in 1963. According to the Wiki author, it “is the world’s most recorded rock song, with published estimates ranging from over 1,600 to more than 2,000 ‘with ever more still being released and performed’”. The Wiki author also reports that Berry sold the song for $750 to pay for his wedding so would have seen very little, if any of the royalties. In the eighties, Berry was living on welfare until a legal case (settled out of court) got him the rights and a significant payout from a drinks company which wanted to use the song in an ad.

4. The ‘Henry’ in Etta’s Wallflower was Hank Ballard. Quite how he felt, apart from wanting royalties, isn’t on record.

5. In her early days at Chess, Etta performed as a backing singer for Chuck Berry (along with at least one other artist later to become famous, Marvin Gaye) on tracks including Almost Grown and Back In The USA. Cal managed to find a site titled The Chuck Berry Database, put together by Dietmar Rudolph, with a portion devoted to these tracks which claims to have the full list. I noted that it includes a version of I Just Want To Make Love To You from Chuck which didn’t see release until it appeared on his pseudo-live LP On Stage in 1963 i.e. after Etta had cut and released her version of the song. The site also covers her appearance with Chuck in the Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll Concerts (there were two of them) in 1986 which were broadcast in 1987 (see later).

6. In 2014, a book was published, written by Greil Marcus, entitled “The History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll In Ten Songs”. One of those songs was All I Could Do Was Cry from Etta. On 30th August 2014, Marcus was interviewed. This is the full interview and below is what he said about that song:

“ETTA JAMES: (Singing) I heard church bells ringing. I heard a choir singing. I saw my love …

“MARCUS: I heard church bells ringing. That’s the opening line. It’s a song about a woman whose man is marrying somebody else. I heard – that’s the whole song. Just in those two words, the way Etta James is able to get so many intimations of resignation, anger – so much of rock ‘n’ roll comes down to these tiny little moments when an artist is able to put absolutely everything that she has, that she knows, into that. And those are the things that stick with us. Could I express as much in a 10 minute song as she expresses in two seconds?”

I’d also strongly recommend the review of the same book by the Los Angeles Review Of Books wherein the reviewer zeroes in on that same song quickly and spends two lengthy paras analysing Etta’s delivery of the first two words.

7. Bill Millar’s essay on Etta contains a quote from her on the events that preceded the recording session for All I Could Do Was Cry:

“Leonard Chess actually lent the Gordys money to start the Anna label, which was distributed by Chess and notionally owned by Berry’s baby sister, Gwen. She was engaged to Billy Davis, but Harvey Fuqua was sent to Detroit to handle business and he fell in love with Gwen and stayed there. Billy Davis came over to Chess and did ‘All I Could Do Was Cry’ with me. I never worked with Harvey again. I was heartbroken and everythin’.”

Which would explain the emotional state she was in when that record was recorded. And Harvey? He married Gwen and became a key figure in the development of Motown.

8. Over the years, there have been complaints about the theme of the Diet Coke ad which utilised Etta’s “Make Love To You”. Emily Brookes, writer for talks about reverse sexism and double standards in relation to the ad, but finishes with:

“Whether Diet Coke will still be around in another 40 years is anyone’s guess. But while the product itself may be problematic, let us today celebrate it for being among the first brands to recognise that women weren’t just thirsty.

They were thirsty.”

9. Etta won three Grammy Awards for her albums – Best Jazz Vocal Performance Female for Mystery Lady: Songs Of Billie Holiday (1995), Best Contemporary Blues Album for Let’s Roll (2004) and Best Traditional Blues Album for Blues To The Bone (2005) – and seventeen Blues Music Awards. She also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.

10. The song The Jealous Kind was actually first recorded by Clarence “Frogman” Henry not its author, Bobby Charles. In the Topper on Clarence, I state that I ruled it out from his Ten “purely on the grounds that I much prefer the version from Bobby himself”. At that time I hadn’t come across Etta’s version.

11. A footnote (from Cal, who was the author of the excellent Wolf Topper) re. Spoonful and Lil’ Red Rooster. Both of these songs have a similar DNA in that they were previously recorded by Howlin’ Wolf as mentioned. But both, too, were recorded by Charley Patton before Willie Dixon adopted and ‘adapted’ them. Charley recorded both A Spoonful Blues and Banty Rooster Blues in 1929. These Patton versions were also adapted from a) Papa Charlie Jackson’s All I Want Is A Spoonful in 1925 and b) Walter Rhodes’ The Crowing Rooster in 1927. Through their transformations the songs sung by Etta now sound vastly different but there are still discernible elements of the songs that are recognisable.

12. The song Cigarettes & Coffee didn’t come out of nowhere. It was written by Eddie Thomas, Jerry Butler (yes, the Jerry Butler who also co-wrote I’ve Been Loving You Too Long with Otis R) and Jay Walker, and was first recorded by Al “TNT” Braggs in 1961. The Redding version which featured a striking new arrangement was the first ‘cover’ to appear. According to Second Hand Songs there are now ten further covers including Etta’s version (with one of them coming from Jerry Garcia).

13. On Friday 30th October 2015, Keith Richards appeared on Desert Island Discs. His fourth selection out of a total of eight, was Etta’s Sugar On The Floor from the 1978 album, Deep In The Night; it also appeared as a single. Given her appearance on the bill on the Stones’ 1978 US Tour it’s quite likely she was performing the song on stage during the tour in order to plug her current album/single.

14. On 25th January 2024, @officialKeef posted on X/Twitter (and, yes, he was out by a day):

Thinking of Etta James on her birthday! Footage is from Chuck Berry’s “Hail Hail Rock’n Roll” 1987 (Rehearsals included in the box set)

The clip that followed was a considerably shortened version of the one below:

And that’s the great Johnnie Johnson on piano.

15. I can’t leave without a live concert clip. Here she is at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1977 singing At Last, Trust In Me and A Sunday Kind Of Love.




Etta James (1938-2012)


Etta James official website

Remembering Etta James, The Matriarch of R&B (Facebook)

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Etta James

California Hall of Fame inductee 2023

Etta James Discography at 45cat

“Rage To Survive: The Etta James Story”
Etta James & David Ritz (Da Capo Press, 2nd edition 2003)

The Etta James Story – Celebrity Underrated series (YouTube)

The Etta James Story Pt.1 of 6
Interviews with Miss Peaches & others by Michael D. Anderson (YT)

Etta James biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson and Otis Redding.

The Stephens/Taylor toppermosts include Johnny Ace, Arthur Alexander, Ray Charles, Cyril Davies, The Falcons, Guitar Slim, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Elmore James, Alexis Korner, Little Walter, Johnny Otis, Junior Parker.

TopperPost #1,107


  1. David Lewis
    Mar 12, 2024

    Before the obligatory and always deserved praise, another way of seeing Etta’s genius is the performance of the extremely talented Beyoncé in ‘Cadillac Records’. Despite her undoubted talent Beyoncé just can’t capture the magic.
    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Brilliantly done.

    • Dave Stephens
      Mar 12, 2024

      An interesting comment. Cal and I did exchange words on the subject of the presence in and performance of Beyoncé in “Cadillac Records”. He thought it perhaps warranted inclusion (though without making any comparison between the artists) while I stuck with my original omission which hadn’t been from lack of awareness; it was all part of trying to keep the word (and the music clip) counts down. I confess that at the time, I hadn’t given an ear to said performance but after your prompt, I’ve now rectified that and I fully agree with your conclusion: Beyoncé sounds fine but only if you don’t know the originals. And thanks for the kind words. Always gratefully received.

  2. John Dell
    Mar 12, 2024

    Check out the delightful footage (YouTube) of Etta with the Grateful Dead and the Tower Of Power horns – New Years Eve 1982 at Oakland Auditorium. She performs “Turn On Your Lovelight”, “Tell Mama”, “Baby,What You Want Me To Do?”, “Hard To Handle” and “Midnight Hour”.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Mar 13, 2024

    Superb Toppermost on a great singer. Speaking of Etta covers, this one may be my favourite, sung with a Galway accent.

  4. Steve Paine
    Mar 13, 2024

    That “Hoochie Coochie Gal” backstage rehearsal has to be one of the top five of its ilk in any and all genres. And who knew that she recorded a Louvin Brothers classic? Those were two of the many pleasant surprises as I read this fine article.

  5. Cal Taylor
    Mar 13, 2024

    John, Andrew and Steve, thank you for your observations and listening recommendations in respect of our Etta James Toppermost, together with your kind comments.
    That definitely was a great, rockin’ live clip from 1982 with the Grateful Dead, with Etta singing Bobby Bland, Jimmy Reed, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett numbers plus ‘Tell Mama’.
    I hadn’t heard it before but that was an excellent rendition of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ by Mary Coughlan.
    Here’s an odd fact/coincidence about the two songs mentioned above, that together were two sides of a single Etta released in 1967 – ‘Tell Mama’ was a female cover version of Clarence Carter’s ‘Tell Daddy’ but on his second album blind Clarence covered ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’(!), an original by Etta.

  6. Dave Stephens
    Mar 13, 2024

    In reference to Steve having picked up on my mention of a Louvin Brothers cover by Etta, I can report that Bill Millar closes his short (but info packed) article referred to in the text, with a statement that both Etta and Jerry Wexler were enthusiastic fans of country music; in Etta’s case he actually uses her own words to confirm this. But there was more. Etta goes on to say: “I went down to Nashville with Marshall Chess and Paul Simon and we cut a country album without any R&B or black flavouring, just plain country songs with fiddles and steel. To this day I don’t know what happened to that album”. So, there could still be an undiscovered Etta James country album sitting around somewhere, maybe Nashville. (And I’m assuming that’s the same Paul Simon who did do record production work in addition to being half of a famous vocal duo.)

  7. Steve Paine
    Mar 15, 2024

    Dave, I’ll be watching for that lost country album. I forgot to mention before, but will now: Here, across the pond, Etta’s “At Last” was the background theme music on Jaguar automobile TV ads in the ’90s. Those ads sold a lot of Jaguars, but also introduced many new fans to Ms. James. See here and here.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.