Etta James Biography: Inside the Life of Grammy Award-winning Singer



Etta James was a gospel sensation. She relocated to Los Angeles in 1954 to record “The Wallflower.” By 1960, her career had taken off, thanks in large part to songs like “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “At Last.” Despite her ongoing drug troubles, she received a Grammy nomination for her 1973 self-titled album. She released her debut album, All the Way, in 2006. James died in Riverside, California, on January 20, 2012, and continues to be is considered one of the most powerful singers in music.

Early Life

On January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles, California, Jamesetta Hawkins was born to a 14-year-old mother, Dorothy Hawkins, who fostered her daughter’s singing career. Later, James would comment, “My mother always told me that even if a song has been done a thousand times, you can still add your unique spin to it. I’d like to think I accomplished that.” James had never met her father.

By the age of five, James was a gospel prodigy, singing in her church choir and on the radio. She moved to San Francisco when she was 12 years old, where she formed a trio and soon began working for bandleader Johnny Otis. In 1954, she moved to Los Angeles with the Otis band to record “The Wallflower” (a gentler title for the then-risqué “Roll with Me Henry”). Etta James (short for Etta James) was born that year, and her vocal group was dubbed “the Peaches” (also Etta’s nickname). With hits like “Good Rockin’ Daddy,” James launched her solo career in 1955.


James’ career took off after joining with Chicago’s Chess Records in 1960. Duets with then-boyfriend Harvey Fuqua, the heartbreaking ballad “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “At Last,” and “Trust in Me” all reached the top of the charts. But James’ abilities were not limited to powerful ballads. She could rock a house with gospel-infused songs like “Something’s Got a Grip On Me” in 1962, “In The Basement” in 1966, and “I’d Rather Go Blind” in 1968.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, James continued to collaborate with Chess. Unfortunately, heroin addiction damaged both her personal and professional life, but despite her ongoing drug difficulties, she continued to release new albums. In 1967, James recorded in the Fame studios with the Muscle Shoals house band, resulting in the victorious Tell Mama album.

Critics and fans alike praised James’ performance, and her 1973 album Etta James received a Grammy nomination, in part for its innovative blend of rock and funk elements. After her contract with Chess expired in 1977, James signed with Warner Brothers Records. Her appearance at the opening ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles boosted her public stature. Following albums, such as Deep In The Night and Seven Year Itch, earned widespread recognition.

Prior to signing a new recording contract with Private Records, James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

Later Career

James continued to perform and record well into the 1990s, with suggestive stage antics and a sarcastic attitude. Her amazing voice, which has always been soulful, was displayed to great advantage on her latest private albums, including Blue Gardenia, which reached the top of the Billboard jazz list. Jimmy had gastric bypass surgery in 2003 and shed almost 200 pounds. As she told Ebony magazine that year, her tremendous weight loss had an effect on her voice. “I have the ability to sing lower, higher, and louder,” James explained.

The next year, James published Let’s Roll, which won a Grammy for best modern blues album. Her sons, Donto and Sametto James, and Josh Sklair worked as producers on the album. This quartet reformed for her following album, Blues to the Bone (2004), which earned James her third Grammy Award — this time for best traditional blues album.

James published the album All the Way in 2006, which included cover versions of songs by Prince, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown. The next year, she appeared on We Love Ella, a tribute album to jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald.

Controversy with Beyoncé

Cadillac Records, a film based on the early days of Chess Records, was released in 2008, with singer Beyoncè Knowles as James. For the soundtrack, Knowles also recorded her own rendition of James’ hallmark song, “At Last.”

While James publicly backed the film, she was allegedly irritated when Knowles sang the song at President Barack Obama’s inauguration gala in January 2009. In February, James allegedly told concertgoers in Seattle that Knowles “had no business… singing my song that I’d been singing forever.” Despite the media attention, James was unmoved by the incident and continued with her busy performing schedule.

Later Years and Death

James began to experience health problems as she approached her seventies. In 2010, she was admitted to the hospital with a blood infection and other problems. Later, it was reported that the iconic singer had dementia and was being treated for leukemia. Her medical issues were revealed in court documents filed by her spouse, Artis Mills. Mills attempted to seize $1 million from James, but was faced with opposition from James’ two sons, Donto and Sametto. The two parties eventually reached an agreement.

The Dreamer, James’s most recent studio album, was released in November 2011 to positive reviews. A few weeks later, James’ doctor declared the singer to be terminally ill. “She is nearing the end of her leukemia treatment. She is also suffering from dementia and Hepatitis C “A local publication quoted Dr. Elaine James (not related to the performer). Etta’s health was deteriorating, and she was receiving care at her Riverside, California, home, according to James’ sons.

On January 20, 2012, James died at her home in Riverside, California. She is still regarded as one of music’s most dynamic singers today.

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