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Commentary: Etta James’ death marks the passing of a legend

Courtesy of MCT

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It is with great sadness that we say farewell to most any figure in the public eye. A voice that will outlast generations has passed on.

At age 73, Grammy-award winning, R&B singer, Etta James, passed away due to leukemia complications Friday morning, five days shy of her 74th birthday.

James’ work and vocal persona have been inspiration for generations of budding singers and musicians. Christina Aguilera, Adele and Beyoncé have all been influenced by James’ rich voice and emotional delivery.

“At Last” may be James’ most recognizable song, but many of the songs in her repertoire carry the same vocal strength and presence.  Imitation may be the best form of flattery, but there is a reason its called imitation. There are many covers of James singing “At Last,” but none is as good as the original.

James’ singing career began before the age of five singing with her church choir and on the radio.  James joined the Chess Records label, the same label as Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, in 1960. The Chess label was one of the main sources of early rock ‘n’ roll and blues.  In this time other hits by James, such as, “All I Could Was Cry,” “I’d Rather Go Blind” and ” Don’t Cry Baby” debuted. She was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

In 2008, “Cadillac Records,” a film based on the rise and fall of Chess Records was released. Beyoncé Knowles took on the role of James in the height of her career.

Los Angeles Confidential writer, Dimitri Ehrlich spoke with Knowles about her portrayal of James, “… I feel like my generation needs to know where all this music is coming from. And it’s coming back. People listen to Amy Winehouse, and even what I do … it all came from Etta James. She was the first black woman to cross over and be played on the radio. If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t even have a chance,” Knowles said.

Some might believe James’ sound is dated, but her style and delivery remain classic and are seen today in contemporary music. Flo Rida sampled “Something’s Got a Hold On Me” in his single “Good Feeling” released August 2011. 

Some may only remember her for “that one song,” but she is the one who brought that voice, that soul, to the ears of the world and it cannot be mimicked. Just like with a lot of movie remakes we forget (or don’t even realize) there was an original, and we shouldn’t. Each cut has something unique to offer us, and James was a director’s cut. 

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