American rhythm-and-blues singer and songwriter For a blues singer, James had a voice of remarkable range. She was adept at shouting the pain of love as well as at crooning tenderly about love’s disappointments.
Born: January 25, 1938; Los Angeles, California
Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles on January 25, 1938, when her mother, Dorothy, was fourteen. James grew up not knowing her father’s identity; later, she discovered he was believed to have been Rudolf Wanderone, Jr., the famous pool player known as Minnesota Fats. James did not meet Wanderone until 1987. Because her mother was unable to care for her, James was raised by Dorothy’s landlady, Lula Rogers. James began singing in a church choir, and she performed on radio broadcasts when she was five. After Rogers died in 1950, James moved to San Francisco to live with her mother. There James formed the singing group the Creolettes, and in 1954 rhythm-andblues performer Johnny Otis changed the group’s name to the Peaches and the lead singer’s name to Etta James.
She and Otis wrote “The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry),” recorded by Modern Records as a response to Hank Ballard’s popular “Work with Me, Annie,” and it reached number two on the rhythmand- blues charts, with a sanitized version by Georgia Gibbs becoming a number-one pop hit. James soon became a solo act, with such songs as “Good Rockin’ Daddy” serving as a prototype for early rock and roll. James extended her range when she moved to Chicago and signed with Chess Records in 1960. Influenced by Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson, James had ten rhythm-and-blues hits during the 1960’s, including “At Last,” “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “I’d Rather Go Blind,” and “Tell Mama,” songs that would remain in her repertoire during the following decades.
As is documented in her autobiography, James began using heroin in 1959. When she tried to end the addiction through methadone treatment in the late 1960’s, she became addicted to this drug as well. After being arrested for writing bad checks, James began rehabilitation in 1973. When James resumed recording for Chess Records later that year, she assumed more artistic control, and her voice had become grittier, more soulful. Her first album in this period, Etta James, was nominated for a Best Rhythm and Blues Vocal Grammy Award. After Chess Records declared bankruptcy, James began recording for other labels. In 1978 she was the opening act for the Rolling Stones’ American tour at the request of Keith Richards, who would later select James to perform in the documentary Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll (1987). A highlight of director Taylor Hackford’s film is the scene of irascible Berry, unable to remember that the teenaged James was one of his backup singers on “Almost Grown” and “Back in the U.S.A.,” being astounded floored by her passionate bellowing of Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music.” In the 1990’s James’s sons joined her recording and touring group. Donto James played drums and percussions and sang backup, while Sametto James played bass. James settled in Riverside, California, with her husband, Artis Mills.
Alongtime problem with obesity led to knee problems, forcing the singer to perform while seated. After gastric bypass surgery in 2003, she lost two hundred pounds. James won Grammy Awards for Best Jazz Vocal Performance for Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday in 1994, Best Contemporary Blues Album for Let’s Roll in 2003, and Best Traditional Blues Album for Blues to the Bone in 2004. James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001. She received a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ( NAACP) Image Award in 1990, a Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award in 1989, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. The Music As with many blues performers, the influence of gospel music is evident in James’s vibrant singing. She moves easily from blues to rhythm-and-blues, to rock, to jazz, and even to country music. “At Last.” The most famous of James’s early songs is “At Last.” Written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, the song was a hit for big band leader Glenn Miller in 1941, but it never became part of the standards repertoire until James’s rousing 1961 rendition, a definitive power ballad. James draws out the lyrics to accentuate the joy of love fulfilled.
Her chilling version of “At Last” has frequently appeared in television commercials and films, including Rain Man (1988). Mixing Genres. James began moving more earnestly toward traditional blues with Seven Year Itch, nominated for a Best Contemporary BluesGrammy Award. Her commitment to the hard-driving rhythms she described as “gutbucket” continued with Stickin’ to My Guns, which mixed rock, soul, and funk with the blues, an indication of James’s musical curiosity and restlessness, her resistance to being pinned down to a single genre. James asked the legendary music producer Jerry Wexler to leave retirement to produce The Right Time, a similar mix of genres, with the highlight being her forceful rendition of Ray Charles’s “Nighttime Is the Right Time,” making itmore sexually suggestive than the original, a quality she has accentuated in her live performances, especially with such songs as “I Want to Ta-Ta You, Baby.” She long wanted to do a country album, but after Love’s Been Rough on Me was remixed to sound jazzier, James disowned it. Mystery Lady. She made the biggest departure of her career and she had one of her greatest successes with Mystery Lady: The Songs of Billie Holiday.
Singing such ballads as “Don’t Explain” and “Lover Man,” James does not imitate Holiday’s voice or her phrasing (as a young woman James briefly met Holiday), but she gives the songs a distinctive spin of her own. Her husky, throaty voice on “Body and Soul” erases the thin line between jazz and blues. More standards albums followed, including Time after Time and Blue Gardenia, in which her mother, a longtime jazz fan, joined her on the title song. Blues to the Bone. Blues to the Bone is a counterpart to her ballad albums, with such blues classics as Jimmy Reed’s “Hush Hush,” Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster,” John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ King Snake,” and Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom.” Although such songs present a male perspective on love and sex, James makes them applicable to women as well through the theatricality of her voice, which shifts effortlessly from a roar to a purr. Musical Legacy James’s powerhouse vocals have influenced numerous performers, particularly Mick Jagger and Janis Joplin (who was thirteen years old when she met James). Singers such as Norah Jones and Joss Stone have also cited James as a model for their singing styles. Since the mid-1950’s, James has presented a persistently female perspective in her songs, paving the way for such singersongwriters as Maria Muldaur, Bonnie Raitt, and Susan Tedeschi. Songs such as “Only Women Bleed” and “Sugar on the Floor” emphasize how women suffer for love.