At various points throughout her life, Etta James dealt with heroin addiction, painkiller addiction, physical abuse, and incarceration. Rather than being cowed by her experiences, James used them to inform her music, resulting in a legacy of work that, a decade after her death from leukemia at the age of 73, still touches, inspires, and influences millions of fans around the globe. Here, we look back on the career of one of the world’s greatest artists with our pick of the 10 best Etta James songs of all time.
10. Damn Your Eyes
James was nothing if not versatile, as capable of turning her hand to pop as to the blues. On Damn Your Eyes, she takes her country side for a spin. Written by Barbara Wyrick and Steve Bogard and included on the album Seven Year Itch (a title that refers to her lengthy period away from the recording studio), it features a great piece of guitar work from Reggie Young and a beautifully understated performance from James. Etta was always a singer who knew when to let loose and when to rein it in, and here, her restrained performance is perfectly pitched to the song’s shadowy tone.
9. I Just Want to Make Love to You
I Just Want to Make Love to You was written by Willie Dixon and first recorded by Muddy Waters, who landed a No. 4 hit with it in 1954. Six years later, James took it for a walk on her debut album, At Last. The song had the misfortune of being released as the B side to the song’s titular track, so understandably got overlooked. Fortunately, it got a second shot at glory in 1996 when it was re-released as a single after featuring in an advertising campaign for Diet Coke. That time around, it hit No. 5 on the UK charts and No. 7 in Ireland.
8. Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield
Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield was written and first performed by the legendary Randy Newman, but as The Guardian notes, in James’ capable hands, it’s transformed into an epic portrait of sexual conspiracy. Set against a restrained production and Lowell George’s beautiful slide guitar, James’ smokey vocals soar. A definite highlight of the album Come a Little Closer, and one no James fan should miss.
7. Something’s Got a Hold On Me
Something’s Got a Hold On Me has been covered and sampled extensively over the years by everyone from Flo Rida to Christina Aguilera and Avicii. Many of the covers have their merits, but few come close to the glorious beauty of James’ original. Written by James, Leroy Kirkland, and Pearl Woods, the song first appeared on her 1962 self-titled album. Released as the third single from the album, it was a huge R&B hit, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot R&B Sides chart.
6. A Sunday Kind of Love
James’ sulfurous vocals take on such a silky smooth edge on A Sunday Kind of Love, it’s easy to overlook the sadness of the lyrics. The song was composed in 1946 by Barbara Belle, Anita Leonard, Stan Rhodes, and Louis Prima. It quickly established itself as a jazz-pop standard, recorded by everyone from Claude Thornhill and his Orchestra to The Del-Vikings and Fran Warren. Despite the song’s popularity, none of the versions made it to the Top 40. James’ version was no different, but its failure in the charts doesn’t dampen its appeal even slightly.
5. The Wallflower (Dance With Me Henry)
Whether you know The Wallflower as The Wallflower, Roll with Me, Henry, Dance with Me, Henry, or simply as one of the best songs James ever made, you’re almost guaranteed to know it. A classic piece of jukebox swing, the song was written by Johnny Otis, Hank Ballard, and James as one of the many answers to the song Work with Me, Annie. With lyrics like “Hey baby, whatta I have to do to make you love me too?/ You’ve got to roll with me Henry,” it was considered much too risque for radio back in 1955, but it still managed to become a major hit, topping the R&B chart for four weeks. In 2008, it was honored with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
4. Tell Mama
In the ’60s, James’ career took a turn for the worse as she sank further into heroin addiction. But you can’t keep a good woman down, and in 1968, she returned with a spring in her step and the fabulously infectious Tell Mama. If you’re in a funk, turn the volume up on this fierce piece of horn-driven soul and kiss goodbye to the blues. Released as a single from the album of the same name, it soared to No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100 – James’ all-time highest position on the chart.
3. All I Could Do Was Cry
When Etta James died at the age of 73, she left behind a body of work that touched on every emotional state a person could ever experience. If you’re happy, blue, in love, out of love, feeling lucky or on a losing streak, there’s an Etta James song to match. As eonline.com notes, All I Could Do Was Cry, a song in which Etta sits by and watches as her love walks down the aisle with someone else, is like an arrow through an already mangled heart, serving as the perfect accompaniment to a good cry.
2. At Last
At Last isn’t just one of Etta James’ finest songs, it’s one of the most iconic compositions of all time. It might have accompanied a thousand cringeworthy rom-coms, but there’s nothing cheesy about Etta’s exuberant, triumphant performance. No matter how many times you hear it piped through waiting rooms, hair salons, or movie theaters, this is one song that will never grow old.
1. I’d Rather Go Blind
Named by udiscovermusic.com as one of the best break-up songs of all time, I’d Rather Go Blind is proof positive that when it comes to heartbreak and sorrow, there’ll only ever be one Etta James. It’s been covered by dozen of artists over the years, including Fleetwood Mac, Grace Potter, Paul Wellar, Dua Lipa, and Rod Stewart. Needless to say, James’ version remains heads and shoulders above the rest.