Born: January 25, 1938 | Died: January 20, 2012 Primary Instrument: Vocal
Etta James began her long career as a singer early, singing doo-wop as a teenager in the 1950s. She has enjoyed equal success crooning blues ballads, belting out rhythm and blues and rock and roll, or interpreting jazz. While the ease with which she can navigate these various styles demonstrates her impressive skill, it has also served to confound the music industry as to how to categorize her. In the late 20th century and into the next, James has finally been widely acknowledged as one of the most talented singers of her era.
James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, California, on January 25, 1938. Dorothy, her mother, was just fourteen years old when she gave birth to James, and she never overtly named the father. James's care was left largely to relatives and friends, including a middle-aged couple by the name of Rogers. James and her foster mother, Lula Mama Lu Rogers, became particularly close. By the age of five, James was living with her grandparents in Los Angeles. It was at this time, while singing solos with the St. Paul Baptist Church's Echoes of Eden choir under the direction of musical director James Earle Hines that she began to get attention for her powerful voice. Soon she began performing gospel on a local radio broadcast.
James turned to music, and when she was fourteen she formed the Creolettes with two other girls. They tracked down Johnny Otis, a bandleader and promoter, when he was playing at the Fillmore. On the strength of the Creolettes' audition for him, Otis arranged for the girls to tour.
Otis renamed the group the Peaches and reversed Jamesetta's name, creating the stage name that has endured to this day. The girls started off earning ten dollars per night for their work with Otis's revue. James first recorded with the Peaches in 1955 on the Modern Records label. The song was her own composition and was called Roll with Me Henry, a coarse response to a song by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters called Work with Me Annie. The song was rechristened a less-racy The Wallflower and became a top-ten hit on the rhythm and blues charts.
In 1955 James had another hit on the Modern label, Good Rockin' Daddy. It became apparent that her talent overshadowed that of her friends, and she separated from the Peaches. Over the ensuing few years James, who was also known as Miss Peaches, toured the country on bills with stars such as Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Marvin Gaye, zydeco accordionist Clifton Chenier, Johnny Guitar Watson, Minnie Riperton, and Chuck Berry. While on the road, she encountered a wide range of responses, from admiration to racism and intimidation,
She found herself performing before large, eager crowds, even though her fame had dimmed somewhat since her 1955 hits. One of the highlights of this time was when James shared the stage with Billie Holiday and Count Basie as part of an National Broadcasting Company radio show in New York called Jazz Plus Blues Equals Soul. The performance occurred in the late 1950s, near the end of Holiday's life.
As the 1950s ended, James was often on the road and broke. But her fortunes began to turn after she arrived in Chicago, where she drew the attention of Leonard Chess and signed on with his label, Chess Records. Chess was just starting to earn recognition with artists like Berry and Diddley. In the early 1960s, James began a prolific period and became one of R&B's most successful singers. With producer Jerry Wexler, she recorded jazz tunes and soul ballads and ran up a string of hits for Chess's subsidiary label, Argo, such as At Last - which peaked at number two on the R&B chart in 1961 - My Dearest Darling, Trust Me, and All I Could Do Was Cry. In 1962 her Something's Got a Hold on Me was the most successful of her three hits that year, charting at number four.
While Chess helped revitalize James's career, the company also exploited her, as it did many other artists. Royalties were withheld and the company was known to seize the publishing rights to artists' original material. She felt there was too much tinkering and direction. Despite favorable critical reviews for the recordings she produced, James felt on edge in the studio.
By the time she was 21, James was addicted to heroin. Her addiction was so disruptive that she stopped recording almost completely between 1964 and 1966, but then pulled herself together enough to record “Call My Name,” an acclaimed blues album. She also recorded some duets with a childhood friend, Sugar Pie DeSanto, which resulted in the hit song In the Basement. In 1967 James went to work for Alabama's Fame Studios, where she recorded a classic album that was well received; “Tell Mama” contains the standout ballad I'd Rather Go Blind. Despite her hits, however, James was generally unknown outside the black population.
Although life for James was out of control by the early 1970s, she was able to arrive at live performances and recording sessions when necessary. In 1974, James finally entered a drug rehabilitation program as a resident at Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital, just outside of Los Angeles, California.
Struggling to pull her career together, James hopped from record label to record label. At Fantasy in 1986 she teamed with tenor sax legend Eddie Cleanhead Vinson and recorded two outstanding jazz albums, “Blues in the Night,” and “The Late Show.” She was also affiliated with the Island and Elektra labels. James then toured with the Rolling Stones and performed at blues and jazz festivals, with the result that white listeners finally began to buy her albums. She sang during the Olympic opening ceremony in 1984, and her debut hit The Wallflower became part of the soundtrack to the hugely popular movie Back to the Future. The singer even made some guest appearances on television programs.
James went for seven years without a recording contract, and then in 1988 she released “Seven-Year Itch” with Island. The next year she received the W. C. Handy Award and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation's Pioneer of the Year Award, and in 1990 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) honored her with two awards: an Image Award and an award for best blues artist for her album “Stickin' to My Guns.”
James continued recording at a furious pace and by the 1990s was considered an R&B legend. Her vaulted status was confirmed with her 1991 induction into the Bay Area Blues Society Hall of Fame and her 1993 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1994 she began to work with producer John Snyder at Private Music and released the critically acclaimed “Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday,” winning a Grammy Award for best jazz vocal in 1995. By mid ‘90’s she entered one of her career's most prolific phases. “Mystery Lady” followed on the heels of both “Etta James Live from San Francisco” and her autobiography, which was followed by “Time after Time,” in 1995.
James's star kept rising into the next century. In 2001 she was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame, and on April 18, 2003, James was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Later that same year she won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, then returned for another Grammy in February 2004 for her self-produced album “Let's Roll.” Her 2004 recording, “Blues to the Bone,” is a compilation of her favorite blues classics. James has also benefited from being able to turn her career into a family affair; she often works with her sons, who back her and produce her recordings.
At nearly 70 years old, Jameswho had long related her love of music and continued to wow audiences with her raucous and enthusiastic concertsshowed no interest retiring any time soon. With a new slimmed-down look, a rejuvenated stage show and celebrating an incredible five decades as a recording artist, music legend Etta James showcases her enduring artistry on an amazing diversity of the eleven songs featured on her 2006 BMG album, “All The Way.”
Etta James is currently on tour with B.B.King, and Al Green.