As a boy, Alemayehu liked watching Elvis Presley movies and singing Presley songs for his friends at school. Dreaming of stardom in Hollywood, he once ran away from home, hitching a ride to a port city in Eritrea, where he hoped to board a ship bound for America. His mission was foiled when someone got in touch with his family and he was sent home.
Mr. Eshete is survived by his wife, Ayehu Kebede Desta; seven children; and six grandchildren.
As Addis Ababa entered the new millennium, its musical past was revisited as part of a cultural revival. Young musicians played the old songs with reverence, and lost classics became radio hits again. Mr. Eshete began performing every Wednesday at a venue called the Jazzamba Lounge.
In 2008, Mr. Eshete and three other notable Ethiopian musicians, Mahmoud Ahmed, Mulatu Astatke and the saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya, performed together at the Barbican in London and at the Glastonbury festival. In New York, backed by the New England-based Either/Orchestra, Mr. Eshete played at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park.
“Mr. Eshete was at his charismatic best,” Nate Chinen wrote in a review of that show in The New York Times. “Each verse began with a single clarion note and then plunged into rapid-fire patter. He tried a few other approaches in his set, like an insinuative croon and a bark befitting his nickname, the Ethiopian James Brown.”
A funeral ceremony attended by hundreds was held for Mr. Eshete at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa. An orchestra played before his coffin was driven away. Just months earlier, Mr. Eshete’s music had echoed across the square when he performed there with a band and sang his song, “Addis Ababa Bete” (“Addis Ababa, My Home”).
Mr. Eshete had recorded that tune, a funky love letter to his city, in 1971 with his fellow musical outlaw, Amha. They sold it from Amha’s defiant little record shop, where it quickly became a hit and set swinging Addis on fire.