RIP: Etta James

One of the most influential singers of the past 50 years has passed away. A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, and recipient of various life achievement awards, this iconic performer has left the land of the living.

Etta James died on Friday morning 7:45 am, January 20 in Riverside, California, surrounded by her loving family.

Richard Berry had a long friendship with Etta. Their first collaboration gave Etta a hit record that launched her solo career in 1955, two years before Richard unleashed his recording of the his most famous song, LOUIE LOUIE.

paintings by Fazzio

Richard’s youngest daughter Christy married Etta’s oldest son Donto, creating a family with three beautiful grandchildren.

When Richard Berry died, I remember how Etta cried at Richard’s funeral, singing a beautiful gospel song to say goodbye to her dear friend.

I saw a lot of unforgettable Etta James concerts over the years, and always hoped I’d be able to get Etta on camera to talk about her friend for this documentary of mine, but we never quite got it together.

… and now she’s gone, leaving us with our memories.

photo by Eric Predoehl © 2012

This seems like the right time to talk about the various musical connections between Etta and Richard.

“The Wallflower (aka Roll With Me Henry)”
As the story was told to me by those that would know, Johnny Otis discovered a young girl named Jamesetta Hawkins that sang with a girl vocal group known as the Creolettes. Johnny took the group under his wing, changing the name of the group into the Peaches, focusing on Ms. Hawkins as the primary singer. Johnny thought Ms. Hawkins’ name lacked the right stage persona, so he flipped Jamesetta’s first name into simply “Etta James,” which had a nice ring to it.

Johnny had visions of recording an “answer song” to a Hank Ballard‘s hit record “Work With Me, Annie,” and decided this group might be a perfect fit for this idea. A recording session was booked on Thanksgiving Day 1954, and singer Richard Berry was brought in to sing the role of “Henry” for this special project. Johnny took the final recording to Modern Records, and was able to get Etta & the Peaches signed to the label.

The song originally known as “Roll With Me Henry” had to renamed “The Wallflower” as the original title was considered too suggestive for radio airplay. That song, released in 1955, became a big hit, hitting the #1 spot on the Billboard R&B singles chart for four weeks.

“Hey Henry”
Soon after the success of “The Wallflower,” Etta broke away from both Johnny Otis and the Peaches, continuing her career as a solo artist. For the follow-up recording, there was a conscious attempt to replicate the success of “The Wallflower,” reuniting Etta with Richard for a song called “Hey Henry,” which was completely ignored by Billboard charts.


“Good Rockin Daddy”
For Etta’s third record, she recorded with Maxwell Davis & Orchestra, who backed her up on her second record. This time, she sang a Richard Berry original composition- “Good Rockin Daddy,” which was considerably more successful, hitting the #6 spot on the on the Bilboard R&B singles chart.

“At Last”
After Etta’s contract with Modern Records expired in 1960, she signed up with Chess Records, which had some impressive sales with Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, among others. Record executive Leonard Chess had envisioned Etta as a classic ballad stylist with the potential to cross over to the pop charts.

For her debut album, she recorded her title track “At Last,” using lush arrangements that utilized violins and other string instruments. It became her first R&B/pop crossover hit and launched her into the mainstream Billboard chart.

What most people don’t realize was that Richard Berry recorded “At Last” six years before Etta’s version. Originally featured in the 1942 musical feature film- Orchestra Wives, the song was covered by seven different musicians, including Miles Davis, Nat King Cole, and Chet Baker before Etta created the prototypical version that most people associate with the song.

Here’s Richard’s version of the song..

Richard Berry “Look Out Miss James”
Sometime in the 1950s, Richard recorded his own “answer song” to “Roll With Me Henry,” which wasn’t released until 1992 when Ace Records (UK) included it as a part of a special Richard Berry compilation entitled “Get Out of the Car.”


* * * * * *

…And In the End….

photo by Eric Predoehl © 2012

Donto James shared some beautiful memories of Etta’s final moments

The goodbyes were delivered at a Riverside, Calif. hospital, where Etta James was taken Thursday night. Donto says his mother couldn’t speak but seemed to understand what he was telling her.

“I asked her if she heard what I said, and she’d flutter her eyes and look at me very quickly. And she had been nonreactive before that,” he says.

Donto describes the moment as “spiritual,” and although he’d long dreaded seeing his mother die, he now believes “it was a true gift to be with her when it happened. I wouldn’t want it any other way than for her to go in our arms.”

Read the rest of Etta James’s Son Describes Her Final Moments
it’s a beautiful story…

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