JAMES, ETTA ( Jamesetta Hawkins) (1938– ) Singer
Rich and rough, Etta James’s booming voice has put its stamp on nearly every popular music genre—from blues to jazz to rock. On January 25, 1938, James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, California. Her 14-year-old mother, Dorothy, was more interested in the club scene than in raising her infant. For much of her youth, Jamesetta lived with her grandparents, devout churchgoers who placed her in their church choir. At six, Jamesetta was singing solos and appearing on gospel radio shows. In her teens, Jamesetta went to live with Dorothy Hawkins in San Francisco. Like her mother, Jamesetta had a taste for street life and a knack for getting into trouble with the law. She also shared with Dorothy a passion for the jazz singing of BILLIE HOLIDAY. When she was 15, Jamesetta started her own singing group, the Creolettes, with two friends.
She bullied her way into an audition with band leader Johnny Otis, who was wowed by her powerful voice. Still a minor, Jamesetta forged her mother’s name on a release form, and the Creo lettes started touring with Otis billed as the Peaches. Rearranging the syllables of her name, Otis also rechristened Jamesetta as Etta James. Soon, the Peaches had their first hit. Ananswer to Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ song “Work with Me Annie,” “Roll with Me, Henry” hit number two on the rhythm and blues charts. Because the original title was considered by some to be too raunchy for airplay, the song was also titled “The Wallflower.”With her newfound success, James went solo. She toured with Little Richard and sang backup for Marvin Gaye and Chuck Berry. Once she had the honor of sharing a stage with her idol Billie Holiday, who was then dying from health ailments resulting from her drug addiction. With her hands and feet hideously swollen, Holiday whispered some words of advice to the young singer: “Just don’t ever let this happen to you.”In 1960, James moved to Chicago and began recording for Chess Records. She had 10 charting hits between 1960 and 1963, making her one of the top artists in rhythm and blues. In records such as “At Last” (1961) and “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” (1962), James displayed her wide range, moving easily from ballads to jazz songs to pop tunes.
Despite her success during this period, James was unable to crossover to sizable white audiences like her contemporary DIANA ROSS, whose singing style was much inspired by James. James’s records also had an enormous infiuence on JANIS JOPLIN,Rod Stewart, the Rolling Stones, and other white artist who rose to fame later in the decade. Through the late 1960s and early 1970s, James’s recording schedule became erratic as a longtime heroin habit began to take over her life. In 1974, she finally kicked her addiction after entering a rehabilitation clinic in Tarzana, California. Slowly, James set about rebuilding her career, playing small clubs and occasionally appearing at jazz and blues festivals. By the mid-1980s, she was touring with the Rolling Stones. She returned to recording after a seven-year hiatus, releasing The Seven Year Itch in 1988. Now considered a legend, James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. In the 1990s, James began spending more time in the studio, creating recordings in a variety of genres.
The most successful was Mystery Lady (1994), which featured James’s take on songs made famous by Billie Holiday. The album, which James said she had wanted to make for 30 years, earned her a Grammy for best jazz vocal. Also well-received were Love, Life and Blues (1998) and Matriarch of the Blues (2001), on which she was backed by her two grown sons, Donto and Sametto. Now settled in Los Angeles with her husband Artie Mills, James documented the many ups and downs of her life in her autobiography, Rage to Survive (1995). In it, she said she had learned to live with the rage that inspired much of her work. “In some ways, it’s my rage that keeps me going,” she wrote. “Without it, I would have been whipped long ago. With it, I got a lot more songs to sing.”
“Etta James.” In Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 13. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996.
James, Etta, and David Ritz. Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story. New York: Villard, 1995.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Etta James, The Best: The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection. MCA, CD, 1997.
Jammin’ With the Blues Greats (1982). Image Entertainment, DVD/VHS, 1998/1995.
20th Century Masters: The Best of Etta James. MCA, CD, 1999.