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Two Tributes to the Incomparable Etta James

Most of you know that the great Soul/Blues singer Etta James died last week. Today, what would have been her 74th birthday, gives us the opportunity to remember and pay tribute to one of the great voices of our time. As a singer, I can’t understate how much of an influence she’s had on me and countless others. She had the rare talent of being able to project attitude and ferocity at one moment and then turn around and sing with tenderness and vulnerability without missing a beat. Her talent was incomparable and she left us too soon.

Etta was born in Los Angeles under the name¬†Jamesetta Hawkins on this day in 1938. Her mother, Dorothy Hawkins, who was only fourteen at the time. She never knew her father but suspected that he might be the legendary pool player Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone, who she met briefly in 1987. Her mother, sadly, was mostly absent during her early childhood, and she was raised by various caregivers, many of whom abused her.

She began voice training at the age of five and quickly became a popular singer at her church. In 1950, her mother took her to San Francisco where she was exposed to the early doo wop sound. She formed her first group, The Creolettes, a couple of years later. The group was taken under the wing of R&B singer Johnny Otis (who, strangely, also died last week, three days before Etta) who convinced them to change their name to The Peaches. Otis got them signed to Modern Records and gave Jamesetta the stage name that she would carry for the rest of her life. Her first release as Etta James, “Dance With Me, Henry,” was released in early 1955. The song reached number one on the Hot Rhythm & Blues Tracks charts and earned Etta and The Peaches an opening slot on Little Richard’s national tour.
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Do the Ska – Coast to Coast!

Ska music a blend of Caribbean mento and calypso with the American r&b and jazz that Jamaicans were hearing from New Orleans radio stations, emerged in the late 50s and is considered to be the grandfather of reggae music. It established the walking bass line and accented upbeat that would become the foundation of the reggae beat but unlike the laid-back vibe of reggae, ska was high energy dance music. This was indicative of the celebratory feeling pulsing through the Jamaican populous. Jamaica received its independence from the UK in 1962 and the upbeat ska sound became the soundtrack for independent Jamaica.

Many of reggae’s stars got their start in ska. Bob Marley & the Wailers started out as a ska group. Jimmy Cliff, one of the first Jamaican singers to reach an international audience was a popular ska singer, even showcasing the music at the 1964 Worlds Fair in New York City. But, there’s one group that provided the music to many of the best known ska hits: The Skatalites. The original lineup of the band broke up in 1965 but they reformed in 1983 due to renewed interest in ska music and have been touring ever since. Only two of the original Skatalites are still playing with the band, vocalist Doreen Shaffer and saxophonist Lester Sterling. Sadly, original drummer Lloyd Knibb just passed away on May 12, 2011 but the new band keeps the spirit of the original ska sound alive.
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