WBLM (102.9 FM) is a 100,000-watt Classic Rock radio station broadcasting from Portland, Maine. For many years, WBLM helped its Sunday morning listeners get ready for church with an all-Blues program called The Maine Blues Project.
I didn’t get to tune in very often, but the last time I caught the show I was treated to my first hearing of a very special recording: Etta James’ cover of the 1960 Elmore James song, “The Sky Is Crying.” I later learned that the recording was from Etta’s 2004 Grammy-winning (“Best Traditional Blues Album”) RCA Victor collection called Blues To The Bone.
The rendition of “The Sky Is Crying” that stopped me in my tracks that Sunday morning used only two instruments: Etta James’ deeply soulful, aged-to-perfection voice and Brian Ray’s rumbling giant of an amplified acoustic guitar. But that was enough.
Etta James began her solo recording career in 1955 on Modern Records. Her first record – “The Wallflower,” also known as “Dance With Me Henry” – reached #1 on the R&B chart.
Etta’s first album – At Last! – came out on Chess Records in late 1960. It contained four songs that became hit R&B singles: “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “My Dearest Darling,” “At Last” and “Trust In Me.”
“Trust In Me,” written by Ned Weaver, Milton Ager and Jean Schwartz and orchestrated by Riley Hampton, is one of my favorite tracks from At Last!
Go ahead, listen to this one, too. If you enjoyed Etta James when she was 66 years old, you have to hear how she sounded at 22!
With a career than spanned 56 years and produced 58 singles and 48 albums, Etta James’ music exerted a significant influence on a countless number of singers and musicians. Her praises have been literally and figuratively sung by dozens of well-known recording artists from Diana Ross, Janis Joplin, Rod Stewart and Bonnie Raitt to Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Pink and Adele. In an April, 2011 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Adele revealed that hearing Etta James sing “was the first time a voice made me stop what I was doing and sit down and listen. It took over my mind and body.”
From 1961 to 2005, 15 different recordings by Etta James were nominated for a Grammy Award. Three of them – the albums Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday (1994), Let’s Roll (2003) and Blues To The Bone – won.
In 1989, the Rhythm and Blues Foundation honored Etta James with one of their first Pioneer Awards. The Foundation gave these awards to artists whose “lifelong contributions have been instrumental in the development of Rhythm & Blues music.”
In 1993, Etta James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2003, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences presented Etta James the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Etta James recorded and released her 30th and last studio album, The Dreamer, in 2011.
Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, California on January 25, 1938.
She passed away on January 20, 2012, in Riverside, California.