#TBT: Celebrating Etta James

One of my all-time favorite songs for a newlywed couple’s first dance is "At Last" by Etta James. Somehow it never gets old. The melodic notes, soaring rifts and gritty tones seem to predict the coming ups and downs of marital bliss, captivating young and old alike.

For this Throwback Thursday, we celebrate the phenomenal voice and the life of the legendary James, whose heartfelt tunes and soulful pipes captured an enduring spot in American music history.

James was born Jamesetta Hawkins 80 years ago, on January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles. She grew from a gospel prodigy into a versatile singer of jazz, R&B, soul, blues and even rock 'n' roll. In her autobiography, Rage to Survive, James tells of a tumultuous childhood filled with hardship and a challenging road to fame that required tenacity, spirit and unwavering faith in her own talent.

James' greatest success came after she signed with Chicago-based Chess Records in 1960. During her time with the company, which inspired the movie Cadillac Records, she produced pivotal works including "A Sunday Kind of Love," “Trust in Me,” "Don't Cry Baby" and, of course, “At Last,” all part of her hits album, The Chess Box as well as highlighted in The Essential Etta James.

After relocating to Alabama, James’ fame continued to soar as she released some of the biggest hits of her career, such as “Tell Mama” and “I’d Rather Go Blind,” both featured in The Definitive Collection.

Despite experiencing the joys of success, James’ career was filled with personal struggles and battles. But she was a fighter, and her life experiences brought authenticity to her music and performances. After all, the blues are not just lyrics sung but life experienced, as noted in her later works Blues to the Bone and The Dreamer. James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

Need more music? Explore music with us through this year’s One Book, One Chicago selection I'll Take You There.

What's your favorite song by Etta James?

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