Life and career
1938–1959: Childhood and career beginnings
Hawkins was born on January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles, California, to Dorothy Hawkins, who was 14 at the time. Her father has never been identified. James speculated that she was the daughter of pool player Rudolf "Minnesota Fats" Wanderone, whom she met briefly in 1987. Her mother was frequently absent from their apartment in Watts, conducting relationships with various men, and James lived with a series of foster parents, most notably "Sarge" and "Mama" Lu. James referred to her mother as "the Mystery Lady".
James received her first professional vocal training at the age of five from James Earle Hines, musical director of the Echoes of Eden choir at the St. Paul Baptist Church, in South-Central Los Angeles. Under his tutelage, she suffered physical abuse during her formative years, with her instructor often punching her in the chest while she sang to force her voice to come from her gut. As a consequence, she developed an unusually strong voice for a child her age.
Sarge, like the musical director for the choir, was also abusive. During drunken poker games at home, he would awaken James in the early morning hours and force her with beatings to sing for his friends. She was a bed-wetter and often soaked with urine on these occasions. The trauma of her foster father forcing her to sing under these humiliating circumstances caused her to have difficulties with singing on demand throughout her career.
In 1950, Mama Lu died, and James's biological mother took her to the Fillmore district of San Francisco. Within a couple of years, she began listening to doo-wop and was inspired to form a girl group, the Creolettes (because of the members' light-skinned complexions).
At the age of 14, she met the musician Johnny Otis. Stories on how they met vary. In Otis's version, she came to his hotel after one of his performances in the city and persuaded him to audition her. Another story was that Otis spotted the Creolettes performing at a Los Angeles nightclub and sought for them to record his "answer song" to Hank Ballard's "Work with Me, Annie". Otis took the group under his wing, helping them sign to Modern Records and changing their name from the Creolettes to the Peaches. He also gave the singer her stage name, transposing Jamesetta into Etta James. James recorded the version, for which she was given credit as co-author, in 1954, and the record was released in early 1955 as "Dance with Me, Henry". The original title of the song was "Roll with Me, Henry", but it was changed to avoid censorship due to the off-color title (roll connoting sexual activity). In February of that year, the song reached number one on the Hot Rhythm & Blues Tracks chart. Its success gave the group an opening spot on Little Richard's national tour.
While James was on tour with Richard, the pop singer Georgia Gibbs recorded a version of James's song, which was released under the title "The Wallflower" and became a crossover hit, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100, which angered James. After leaving the Peaches, James had another R&B hit with "Good Rockin' Daddy" but struggled with follow-ups. When her contract with Modern came up for renewal in 1960, she signed a contract with Chess Records instead. Shortly afterwards she was involved in a relationship with the singer Harvey Fuqua, the founder of the doo-wop group the Moonglows.
The musician Bobby Murray, toured with James for over 20 years. He wrote that James had her first hit single when she was 15 years old and went steady with B.B. King when she was 16. James believed that King's hit single "Sweet Sixteen" was about her. In early 1955, she and an aspiring singer, the 19-year-old Elvis Presley, then recording for Sun Studios and an avid fan of King's, shared a bill in a large club just outside Memphis. In her autobiography, she noted how impressed she was with the young singer's manners. She also recalled how happy he made her many years later when she found out that it was Presley who had moved her close friend Jackie Wilson from a substandard convalescent home to a more appropriate facility and, as she put it, paid all the expenses. Presley died a year later. Wilson went on to live for another ten years in the care center Presley found for him.
1960–1978: Chess and Warner Brothers years
Dueting with Harvey Fuqua, James recorded for Argo Records (later renamed Cadet Records), a label established by Chess. Her first hit singles with Fuqua were "If I Can't Have You" and "Spoonful". Her first solo hit was the doo-wop–styled rhythm-and-blues song "All I Could Do Was Cry", which was a number two R&B hit. Chess Records co-founder Leonard Chess envisioned James as a classic ballad stylist who had potential to cross over to the pop charts and soon surrounded the singer with violins and other string instruments. The first string-laden ballad James recorded was "My Dearest Darling" in May 1960, which peaked in the top five of the R&B chart. James sang background vocals for her labelmate Chuck Berry on his "Back in the U.S.A."
Her debut album, At Last!, was released in late 1960 and was noted for its varied selection of music, from jazz standards to blues to doo-wop and rhythm and blues (R&B). The album included the future classic "I Just Want to Make Love to You" and "A Sunday Kind of Love". In early 1961, James released what was to become her signature song, "At Last", which reached number two on the R&B chart and number 47 on the Billboard Hot 100. Though the record was not as successful as expected, her rendition has become the best-known version of the song. James followed that with "Trust in Me", which also included string instruments. Later that same year, James released a second studio album, The Second Time Around. The album took the same direction as her first, covering jazz and pop standards and with strings on many of the songs. It produced two hit singles, "Fool That I Am" and "Don't Cry Baby".
James started adding gospel elements in her music the following year, releasing "Something's Got a Hold on Me", which peaked at number four on the R&B chart and was a Top 40 pop hit. That success was quickly followed by "Stop the Wedding", which reached number six on the R&B chart and also had gospel elements. In 1963, she had another major hit with "Pushover" and released the live album Etta James Rocks the House, recorded at the New Era Club in Nashville, Tennessee. After a couple years of minor hits, James's career started to suffer after 1965. After a period of isolation, she returned to recording in 1967 and reemerged with more gutsy R&B numbers thanks to her recording at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. These sessions yielded her comeback hit "Tell Mama", co-written by Clarence Carter, which reached number ten R&B and number twenty-three pop. An album of the same name was also released that year and included her take on Otis Redding's "
Security". The B-side of "Tell Mama" was "I'd Rather Go Blind", which became a blues classic and has been recorded by many other artists. In her autobiography, Rage to Survive, she wrote that she heard the song outlined by her friend Ellington "Fugi" Jordan when she visited him in prison. According to her account, she wrote the rest of the song with Jordan, but for tax reasons gave her songwriting credit to her partner at the time, Billy Foster.
Following this success, James became an in-demand concert performer though she never again reached the heyday of her early to mid-1960s success. Her records continued to chart in the R&B Top 40 in the early 1970s, with singles such as "Losers Weepers" (1970) and "I Found a Love" (1972). Though James continued to record for Chess, she was devastated by the death of Leonard Chess in 1969. James ventured into rock and funk with the release of her self-titled album in 1973, with production from the famed rock producer Gabriel Mekler, who had worked with Steppenwolf and Janis Joplin, who had admired James and had covered "Tell Mama" in concert. The album, known for its mixture of musical styles, was nominated for a Grammy Award. The album did not produce any major hits; neither did the follow-up, Come a Little Closer, in 1974, though, like Etta James before it, the album was also critically acclaimed. James continued to record for Chess (now owned by All Platinum Records), releasing one more album in 1976, Etta Is Betta Than Evvah! Her 1978 album Deep in the Night, produced by Jerry Wexler for Warner Bros., incorporated more rock-based music in her repertoire. That same year, James was the opening act for the Rolling Stones and performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Following this brief success, however, she left Chess Records and did not record for another ten years as she struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism.
1984–2012: Later career
Though she continued to perform, little was heard of James until 1984, when she contacted David Wolper and asked to perform in the opening ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympics, at which she sang "When the Saints Go Marching In". In 1987, she performed "Rock & Roll Music" with Chuck Berry in the documentary film Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll.
In 1989, she signed with Island Records and released the albums Seven Year Itch and Stickin' to My Guns, both of which were produced by Barry Beckett and recorded at FAME Studios. Also in 1989 James was filmed in a concert at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles with Joe Walsh and Albert Collins for the film Jazzvisions: Jump the Blues Away. Many of the backing musicians were top-flight players from Los Angeles: Rick Rosas (bass), Michael Huey (drums), Ed Sanford (Hammond B3 organ), Kip Noble (piano) and Josh Sklair, her longtime guitar player.
James participated with the rap singer Def Jef on the song "Droppin' Rhymes on Drums", which mixed James's jazz vocals with hip-hop. In 1992, she recorded the album The Right Time, produced by Jerry Wexler for Elektra Records. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
James signed with Private Music Records in 1993 and recorded a Billie Holiday tribute album, Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday. The album set a trend of incorporating more jazz elements in James's music. The album won James her first Grammy Award, for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female, in 1994. In 1995, her autobiography, A Rage to Survive, co-written with David Ritz, was published. Also in 1995, she recorded the album Time After Time. A Christmas album, Etta James Christmas, was released in 1998.
By the mid-1990s, James's earlier classic music was being used in commercials, including "I Just Wanna Make Love to You". After an excerpt of the song was featured in a Diet Coke advertising campaign in the UK, it reached the top ten on the UK charts in 1996.
By 1998, with the release of Life, Love & the Blues, she had added as backing musicians her sons, Donto and Sametto, on drums and bass, respectively. They continued as part of her touring band. She went on recording for Private Music, which released the blues album Matriarch of the Blues in 2000, on which she returned to her R&B roots; Rolling Stone hailed it as a "solid return to roots", further stating that with this album she was "reclaiming her throne—and defying anyone to knock her off it". In 2001, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the latter for her contributions to the developments of both rock and roll and rockabilly. In 2003, she received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. On her 2004 release, Blue Gardenia, she returned to a jazz style. Her final album for Private Music, Let's Roll, released in 2005, won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked her number 62 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
James at the 2006 Common Ground Festival in Lansing, Michigan
James performed at the top jazz festivals in the world, such as the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1977, 1989, 1990 and 1993. She performed nine times at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival and five times at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. She performed at the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1990, 1997, 2004, and 2007. She performed at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2006, 2009, and 2012. She also often performed at free summer arts festivals throughout the United States.
In 2008, James was portrayed by Beyoncé Knowles in the film Cadillac Records, a fictional account of Chess Records, James's label for 18 years, and how label founder and producer Leonard Chess helped the careers of James and others. The film portrayed her pop hit "At Last". James and Knowles were seen embracing on the red-carpet for the film's release. James later said that her previous critical remarks about Knowles for having performed "At Last" at the inauguration of Barack Obama were a joke stemming from how she felt hurt that she herself was not invited to sing her song. It was later reported that Alzheimer's disease and "drug induced dementia" had contributed to her negative comments about Knowles.
In April 2009, at the age of 71, James made her final television appearance, performing "At Last" on the program Dancing with the Stars. In May 2009, she received the Soul/Blues Female Artist of the Year award from the Blues Foundation, the ninth time she won the award. She carried on touring but by 2010 had to cancel concert dates because of her gradually failing health, after it was revealed that she was suffering from dementia and leukemia. In November 2011, James released her final album, The Dreamer, which was critically acclaimed upon its release. She announced that this would be her final album. Her continuing relevance was affirmed in 2011 when the Swedish DJ Avicii achieved substantial chart success with the song "Levels", which samples her 1962 song "Something's Got a Hold on Me". The same sample was used by the rapper Flo Rida in his 2011 hit single "Good Feeling". Both artists issued statements of condolence upon James's death.