Musicheads Essential Artist: Etta James

Etta James
Etta James circa 1960 in Chicago. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, via NPR)
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A gospel prodigy and the matriarch of R&B, Etta James didn't just sing the blues: she lived them.

She was sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll before the term was coined. As a child in California, Etta James avoided her series of foster parents by finding a voice in the church choir — even with a choir instructor who often punched her in the chest to get her to sing from her gut.

Etta took the blows from life and pushed everything out in song: the emotional ferocity, hunger and pain created a vocal performance like none other.

Etta James was one of the most influential female vocalists for 50 years, crossing genres to gain entry to both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame; earning four Grammy Awards, including Best Jazz Performance and a Lifetime Achievement honor in 2003.

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