Early life and career: 1938–1959
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 Jamesetta 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.
 She became a popular singing attraction, and Sarge tried unsuccessfully to pressure the church into compensating their family for her singing.
Sarge, like the
musical director for the
choir, was also abusive. During drunken poker games at home, he would awaken Jamesetta 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
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.