Etta James Biography
Etta James may have surprised herself by living long enough to become a big star. Her singing career, more than 50 years long, has included more highs and lows than her vocal range. For decades she subverted her own success by maintaining a reckless lifestyle that included serious drug abuse and a number of questionable love-life decisions. At various career stages she has been a rhythm-and-blues belter, a blues crooner, and a rock-and-roll screamer. Although her powerful voice has handled each type of material with equal skill, this style-hopping has made it hard for the music industry to categorize her. In the 1990s, James finally gained widespread recognition as one of the most gifted singers of her time, much to the delight of hardcore fans who have remained loyal since she recorded her first hits as a teenager in the 1950s. By the turn of the century, James had become a legend.
James was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles, California. Her mother, Dorothy, was only 14 years old when Jamesetta was born, and she never directly revealed the identity of Jamesetta's father. In her 1995 autobiography, Rage to Survive, James put forth her belief that pool legend Minnesota Fats was her real father. Because Dorothy Hawkins led a somewhat wild, Bohemian lifestyle, Jamesetta was left in the care of a middle-aged couple named Rogers. Jamesetta became especially close to her foster mother, Lula "Mama Lu" Rogers.
Jamesetta's powerful singing voice began to gain attention when she was still a small child. As early as age five, she was singing solos with her church choir, and soon she was even performing gospel music on local radio. As she got older, she began taking an interest in the smooth doo-wop music that was becoming popular on the streets. When Jamesetta was about 12, Mama Lu died after a series of strokes. She was then taken to San Francisco to live with her biological mother, Dorothy Hawkins.
With the unpredictable Dorothy, Jamesetta's home life was very unhappy. Increasingly, she sought refuge in music. She formed a girl singing group called the Creolettes, which quickly attained a sizable local following. When Jamesetta was 14, the Creolettes were discovered by bandleader and promoter Johnny Otis. Otis took the Creolettes to Los Angeles—with the forged permission of the underage Jamesetta's mother—and put them into his revue. He renamed the group the Peaches, and reversed Jamesetta's name, creating what has remained her stage name ever since: Etta James.
In 1955 James made her first recording with the Peaches on the Modern Records label. Originally titled "Roll with Me Henry," the song was an answer to Hank Ballard and the Midnighters' hit "Work with Me Annie." Since "Roll with Me Henry" was considered too racy a title for radio airplay, the song was renamed "The Wallflower." It eventually made it into the top ten on the R&B charts. Although "The Wallflower" was a hit for James, it made an even bigger splash when it was subsequently recorded as "Dance with Me Henry" by white singer Georgia Gibbs. Although she collected a share of the royalties, James was outraged to see another singer get most of the glory for her song.
James had one more big hit on Modern in 1955, "Good Rockin' Daddy." She spent the next few years traveling the country at the bottom end of bills that featured stars like Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and zydeco king Clifton Chenier. Though she was still a minor, James grew up on these tours, meeting celebrities, witnessing their sometimes outrageous lifestyles, and receiving treatment that ranged from adulation to racist intimidation to outright theft. Her star faded somewhat from her initial hits of 1955, but she was still performing in front of large and enthusiastic crowds during this period.
As the 1950s drew to a close, James frequently found herself on the road and penniless. Landing in Chicago, she managed to attract the attention of Leonard Chess of the Chicago-based Chess Records, an emerging company that was making a name for itself with artists like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. During the early 1960s, James scored a string of major hits for Chess and its subsidiary labels, making her one of the biggest stars on the R&B scene. In 1960, two James songs made the R&B charts. Four more reached the charts the following year, including the soulful ballad "At Last," which peaked at number two. In 1962, James' "Something's Got a Hold on Me" reached the number four spot, the highest of her three hits that year. She also recorded several duets with Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows, with whom her relationship was romantic as well as professional. The material that James recorded for Chess exhibited the full range of her stylistic capabilities, from tender love ballads to heavy blues to easy-on-the-ears pop. Although the people at Chess kept her career alive, they also exploited her, as they did many artists, finding ways to withhold royalties and grabbing the publishing rights to musicians' original material. During this time, James lived at the historic—and cheap—Sutherland Hotel along with many other musicians destined for stardom, including Fuqua, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield.
Unfortunately, the pressures of constant touring wreaked havoc on her personal life. By the time she was 21 years old, James was addicted to heroin. Her problems with drugs made it all the more difficult for James to sustain her career. She also seemed drawn to violent and abusive men. By the mid-1960s, she had disappeared from the scene again. She rebounded in 1966 to record a widely-acclaimed blues album, Call My Name. She also recorded a series of duets with singer Sugar Pie DeSanto, a childhood friend, and those sessions produced a big hit in "In the Basement." In 1967 James began recording at Fame Studios in Alabama, and this period produced the well-received albums Tell Mama and I'd Rather Go Blind.
Although James remained largely unknown outside of the black community despite her hits, white rockers knew who she was. Many rock stars had become Etta James fans early on, and her no-holds-barred singing style influenced several of them. Janis Joplin and Rolling Stone Keith Richards were among those who were listening to James when she was still toiling on shoestring-budget tours.
By the early 1970s, James' life was very much out of control, although she managed to arrive at the recording studio and at live performances when required. In order to support her growing heroin habit, she found it necessary to become a petty criminal, forging prescriptions and writing bad checks. When things got bad enough, she was not above stealing from friends and acquaintances. In 1973, faced with the prospect of several years in prison, James opted to enter the residential drug rehabilitation program at Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital outside of Los Angeles.
James continued to record during her rehabilitation, producing two more albums in 1974. During the rest of the 1970s and into the early 1980s, she kept busy performing in small clubs and occasionally at big-time blues and jazz festivals, usually bringing down the house. Finally free of her various addictions, James' career suddenly skyrocketed in the mid-1980s. After decades of failing to find a crossover audience, James' albums began to catch on with white listeners. As fans of her early work rose to positions of power in the entertainment industry, James' songs began to find their way into all sorts of unexpected places. She sang at the opening ceremony for the 1984 Olympics, for example. "The Wallflower," her first hit, was used in the soundtrack of the blockbuster movie Back to the Future. James also began making occasional spot appearances on television shows.
In 1988, after seven years without a recording contract, James released Seven Year Itch on Island Records. She continued to record at a frenzied pace, and as the 1990s unfolded James found herself elevated to the status of R&B legend. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. In 1995 James won her first Grammy award, after several nominations, for Mystery Lady, a collection of songs associated with the great Billie Holiday, with whom James had long identified. It is somewhat ironic that James' first Grammy came in the jazz category, after some 40 years spent chasing rhythm-and-blues dreams. Her follow-up album, Time After Time, also consisted mainly of jazz standards.
Having reinvented herself as a jazz singer, James seemed to have finally fulfilled the promise that some in the music industry had always seen in her. Perhaps the same demons that haunted and hindered her career for so long have simultaneously fueled her drive to succeed. As James observed in her 1995 autobiography, Rage to Live, "I've learned to live with rage. In some ways, it's my rage that keeps me going. Without it, I would have been whipped long ago. With it, I got a lot more songs to sing."
James' demons caught up with her over the years, however. She piled on weight until she had difficulty walking. For years she was helped onto stage in a wheelchair for knee problems exacerbated by her weight. But when she fell on a New York City sidewalk and had trouble getting her nearly 400-pound body back up, James knew she needed help. She had gastric bypass surgery in 2002 and dropped approximately 200 pounds. James told Ebony that she credits her doctor for having "saved my life."
More than regaining her mobility, however, James discovered a new voice within herself. She told Ebony that after the surgery she was able to sing "lower, higher, and louder." With her "new" voice James embraced both touring and studio sessions, traveling the country to perform and recording new albums. For her contributions to blues music, James was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001. In 2003 James was honored with a lifetime achievement Grammy award, her own star on Hollywood's walk of fame, as well as a Grammy for best contemporary blues album the next year for Let's Roll. James became especially inspired by Martin Scorsese's documentary The Blues, produced by PBS, and recorded a selection of traditional blues songs on her 2004 album Blues to the Bone, for which she won a Grammy in 2005. At nearly 70 years old, James—who had long related her love of music and continued to wow audiences with her raucous and enthusiastic concerts—showed no interest retiring any time soon.
At Last, Cadet, 1961.
Etta James Sings for Lovers, Argo, 1962.
Etta James, Argo, 1962.
Etta James Rocks the House, Chess, 1963.
Top Ten, Cadet, 1963.
Queen of Soul, Argo, 1964.
Etta James Sings Funk, Chess, 1965.
Call My Name, Cadet, 1966.
Tell Mama, Cadet, 1967.
Losers Weepers, Cadet, 1970.
Etta James, Chess, 1973.
Come a Little Closer, Chess, 1974.
Peaches, Chess, 1974.
(With Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson) Blues in the Night, Fantasy, 1986.
Seven Year Itch, Island, 1988.
Stickin' to My Guns, Island, 1990.
The Right Time, Rounder, 1992.
How Strong is a Woman, Island, 1993.
Mystery Lady: The Songs of Billie Holiday, Private, 1994.
Etta James Live from San Francisco, Private, 1994.
Time After Time, Private, 1995.
Love's Been Rough on Me, Private, 1997.
Life, Love and the Blues, Private, 1998.
Heart of a Woman, Private, 1999.
Matriarch of the Blues, Private, 2000.
Blue Gardenia, Private, 2001.
Burnin' Down the House, Private, 2002.
Let's Roll, Private, 2003.
Blues to the Bone, RCA, 2004.
James, Etta (with David Ritz), Rage to Survive, Villard, 1995.
Ebony, September 2003, p. 174.
Essence, January 2004, p. 158.
Jet, May 12, 2003, p. 45.
Living Blues, Autumn/Winter 1982, p. 12.
Los Angeles Times, August 2, 1995, p. F1.
Newsweek, November 21, 1994, p. 98.
Rolling Stone, August 10, 1978, p. 22.
Etta James, www.etta-james.com (May 31, 2005).
—Robert R. Jacobson and
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