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.