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Etta Jones Dies at 72

Etta Jones, a much-loved vocalist whose career spanned over 50 years, passed away on Tues., Oct. 16 in Mount Vernon, N.Y. after a long struggle with cancer. She was 72.

Jones was born in Aiken, S.C. on Nov. 25, 1928, but grew up in New York City. Her family recognized her vocal talent early, and encouraged her to enter a talent contest when she was 15. She didn’t win, but got a plum prize out of the competition anyway: a gig as the youngest member of pianist Buddy Johnson’s jump blues band. She stayed with the band for about a year, leaving to record her first album in 1944. This featured Jones singing four Leonard Feather songs with Barney Bigard’s pickup ensemble. For the next eight years, Jones recorded with bands led by Bigard, J.C. Heard and Earl “Fatha” Hines.

In 1952, Jones decided to go out on her own. Despite her talent, she could not support herself financially by singing, often working as an elevator operator, a seamstress and an album stuffer in order to pay the bills. That all changed in 1960, when her album Don’t Go To Strangers went gold; the title track became a monster hit single. “They told me I was all over the jukeboxes and I couldn’t believe it,” recalled Etta. “So a friend of mine took me to a bar. I couldn’t believe it.”

While touring in 1968, Jones teamed with saxophonist Houston Person and his trio for a gig. It turned out to be quite a fortuitous pairing, as the two developed an artistic and personal chemistry almost immediately. They became collaborators and companions, performing and recording together until her death.

Jones never forgot the lessons she learned in Buddy Johnson’s band; her singing combined a blues sensibility with jazz instincts and a warm, round tone. Her tribute to Johnson, My Buddy: Songs of Buddy Johnson, which also featured Person, was nominated for a Grammy in 1998.

She is survived by her husband, John Medlock; two sisters; and a granddaughter.

Originally Published