Born: January 25, 1938 in Los Angeles CA
Died: January 20, 2012 in Los Angeles CA
Without a doubt, Etta James ranks among the very best that the blues, soul, rock, and R&B worlds have ever seen. The talented vocalist has had her ups and downs throughout a career that has spanned six decades, but she's always come through in the end with stellar performances that span the aforementioned musical styles. She was a mainstay of Chess Records during the 1960s, and over the course of her storied career, James has earned four Grammy™ Awards and 17 Blues Music Awards.
The Wallflower Comes Of Age
Etta James was born as Jamesetta Hawkins to a single mother in Los Angeles, her family moving to San Francisco when she was in her teens. The young vocalist learned to sing in the church, and later formed a doo-wop group called the Peaches with two other girls.
There are differing stories as to how James was discovered by bandleader Johnny Otis, but in 1954 they recorded the song "The Wallflower," in response to Hank Ballard's R&B hit "Work with Me, Annie." The James song became a #2 hit on the R&B charts for Modern Records, and James followed it a year later with "Good Rockin' Daddy."
During the 1950s, James toured with Johnny Otis, Little Richard, Otis Redding, and Johnny "Guitar" Watson, witnessing firsthand a lifestyle not experienced by many teens. Follow-up singles for Modern like "Tough Lover" and "W-O-M-A-N" failed to chart, and James left the label to sign with Chicago's Chess Records.
The Chess Years
Signed by Leonard Chess to his label's Argo subsidiary, James delivered a string of R&B hits like "All I Could Do Was Cry" (recorded with her husband, Moonglows' lead singer Harvey Fuqua), "Something's Got A Hold On Me," and "Trust In Me," among others. In 1961, James delivered her masterpiece debut album for Chess, At Last! showcasing the singer's breathtaking abilities to knock out both blustery blues tunes (like Willie Dixon's "I Just Want To Make Love To You") as well as jazz standards like "Stormy Weather" and R&B rave-ups like the title cut.
James enjoyed a successful run with Chess, staying with the label through 1978. James released a powerhouse live album in 1963, Etta James Rocks The House, which was recorded at Nashville's famed New Era Club. James ventured to Fame Studios in 1967 to record what would become the biggest hit of her career, "Tell Mama" and the album of the same name, which also included the classic "I'd Rather Go Blind" and a strong cover of Otis Redding's "Security." James' hits dried up in the late-1960s, however, as drug addiction took its toll on the singer, although she remained a popular live performer.
A Rage To Survive
After suffering through the better part of a decade of lean years, hospitalization for her addiction, and sporadic recordings, James got clean and recorded what many consider to be her "comeback" album, 1988's Seven Year Itch, also recorded in Muscle Shoals. It was James' first album in seven years, and it led to a handful of critically-acclaimed album releases that mixed James' powerful rhythm & blues vocals with jazz overtones, such as her Billie Holiday tribute Mystery Lady, which would earn James her first Grammy™ Award.
In 1995 James published her autobiography, A Rage To Survive, co-written with David Ritz. The book came clean about both the triumphs and the tragedies of her lengthy career, including her drug addiction. She was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, and to both the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2001. In 2003, James received a Grammy™ Lifetime Achievement Award, and a year later Rolling Stone placed James at #62 on the magazine's list of "100 Greatest Artists of All Time."
During the 1990s and '00s, James has continued to tour steadily, performing jazz and blues festivals around the world, including the Monterey Jazz Festival a remarkable nine times. She has also recorded a number of new albums in the soul, blues, and jazz styles during this time, as well as her first holiday album, Etta James Christmas, in 1998. In 2008, James was portrayed by Beyonce Knowles in the film Cadillac Records, which was loosely based on the history of Chess Records.
Recommended Albums: The wonderfully beguiling At Last! features some of James' best work for the Chess family of labels, but the 20-track compilation Her Best provides twice as much of one of the finest singers in music history. The Essential Modern Records Collection features the singer's 1950s-era hits.