Etta James biography
Date of birth : 1938-01-25
Date of death : 2012-01-20
Birthplace : Los Angeles, California
Nationality : American
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2011-05-17
Credited as : Blues, soul singer, jazz singer and songwriter, Blues Music Awards
Etta James was once among the most woefully overlooked figures in the history of blues and rock. She began finally coming into her own in the 1990s, receiving industry awards that confirmed her status as one of the matriarchs of modern music. James influenced a variety of musicians, including The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Diana Ross, Janis Joplin, and even Christina Aguilera. She has been seen as bridging the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll. Recording some of the first-ever rock and roll records when she was a teenager in the 1950s, James had a unique view of rock's origins. Not limiting herself to rock, however, she went on to make potent soul records in the 1960s and 1970s, adding further polish to her lengthy career.
Born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles, James's start in life was not ideal. Her mother, Dorothy, gave birth at 14; her father was unknown. James has remained convinced that it was Minnesota Fats, the noted pool hustler. "My heart told me that Minnesota Fats was my father. There was also evidence to back me up. But [in the 1970s]... I didn't have the courage or means to confront him," James wrote in her autobiography.
Baby Jamesetta was placed in the care of Lulu Rogers, her landlady, when her mother proved to be an unwilling parent. James was raised in the church and sang gospel hymns in the St. Paul Baptist Church choir. She was a child prodigy, performing on Los Angeles gospel radio broadcasts by the age of five. "I'm not a braggart, but when I was a little girl people used to come from all over Hollywood to hear me sing," said James in a 2004 interview with Essence. "Here was this 5-year-old sounding like a grown woman. People were shouting all over the place."
After the death of Rogers in 1950, James went to live with relatives in San Francisco, when she was 12. According to Essence, James was "a restless womanchild, in and out of girl gangs and singing groups." When James was still a teenager, she formed a singing group called The Creolettes with two other girls. West Coast rhythm and blues titan Johnny Otis discovered James in 1954. "We were up in San Francisco," Otis recalled in Rolling Stone, "for a date at the Fillmore. That was when it was black. ... I was asleep in my hotel room when ... my manager phoned. He was in a restaurant and a little girl was bugging him: she wanted to sing for me. I told him to have her come around to the Fillmore that night. But she grabbed the phone from him and shouted that she wanted to sing for me NOW. I told her that I was in bed---and she said she was coming over anyway. Well, she showed up with two other little girls. And when I heard her, I jumped out of bed and began getting dressed. We went looking for her mother since she was a minor. I brought her to L.A., where she lived in my home like a daughter." Despite her determination to audition for Otis in his hotel room, James remarked later in Rolling Stone, "I was so bashful, I wouldn't come out of the bathroom."
Otis took the Creolettes on the road with him in 1954, paid them each ten dollars a night, and changed their name to The Peaches. It was Otis who transformed Jamesetta into Etta James. The trio first recorded in 1953 with Modern Records, home to John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, and B.B. King. The group's first side was "Roll with Me, Henry," an "answer song" to Hank Ballard's leering hit "Work with Me Annie." The song, written by James, was eventually covered by "whiter-than-white Georgia Gibbs, whose 'Dance with Me, Henry' ... outsold Etta's hit," according to Booklist. James, Otis, and Ballard split the royalties three ways. "That's one time when we were not unhappy with a white cover [of a song originally recorded by a black performer]," Otis told Rolling Stone.
After this success James went on tour with 1950s' rock and roll sensation Little Richard. "I was so naive in those days," James admitted in the same Rolling Stone piece. "Richard and the band were always having those parties. I'd knock on the door and they'd shout 'Don't open it! She's a minor!' Then one day I climbed up on a transom, and the things I saaaaaw...." After her stint with Richard, James sang backup on records by soul greats Marvin Gaye, Minnie Riperton, and Harvey Fuqua; she also lent her voice to many 1950s hits by early rock legend Chuck Berry, an association that would lead to a longstanding friendship. With her ripe, whiskey-cured, brawling belts, James was well on her way to becoming queen of the blues.
James began an association with Chicago's Chess Records in the late 1950s, recording several numbers on Chess's subsidiary label, Argo. She made the move to Chess and then to Chicago with Fuqua's help. Fuqua is best known as the founding vocalist of The Moonglows. James was in love with Fuqua, but he did not return her affection. In fact, he left Chicago for Detroit and Motown, where he met and married Gwen Gordy, sister of Motown mogul Berry Gordy. Ironically, James's first recording for Chess about a jilted lover was co-written by Gwen Gordy.
In those early days, James, Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and many other fledgling greats lived in Chicago's low-budget Sutherland Hotel. "We were hungry, starving musicians," James revealed in Rolling Stone. This changed abruptly, however, when James hit the mother lode with ten chart-making hits from 1960 through 1963. In 1960 two of her songs made the rhythm and blues charts. In 1961 four of her songs hit the charts, including the slow and soulful number-two hit "At Last." In 1962 three of James's songs landed on the charts, including "Something's Got a Hold on Me," which went to number four. The year 1963 saw another chart-topper and in 1966, James recorded the blues masterpiece "Call My Name."
The following year she moved to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. It was there that she scored the biggest hits of her career: the self-penned, beautiful, aching "I'd Rather Go Blind" and the raw, rollicking "Tell Mama," which San Francisco Chronicle critic Joel Selvin called "one of the finest examples of Southern soul ever cut in Muscle Shoals, Alabama." In spite of her popularity, however, James was never able to break out of the black entertainment market in the 1960s. Ironically, her singing style of purring, pointing, and little-girl pouting was copied by singer Diana Ross, who was able to score hits in the white music market.
James endured a lengthy string of legal problems starting in the early 1970s, due to a heroin addiction. "She was in and out of jails and rehabilitation programs, writing bad checks, driving stolen cars," wrote Selvin. "Her husband, Artis Mills, took a 10-year fall for her." She and Mills had met in 1969 and later married. Mills served seven years in Texas's Huntsville State Prison. When he was released, James was in rehabilitation. They eventually reunited and are still married.
In 1974 a judge sentenced her to a drug treatment program in lieu of serving time in prison. She was in the Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital for 17 months, at age 35. "It took a good-hearted judge to make me stop and examine myself. I was too stubborn, too willful, too hooked on junk to make the decision on my own. It didn't take a genius to understand how badly I needed therapy," James said in an excerpt from her 1995 autobiography, Rage to Survive. "Throughout L.A. County, The Family at Tarzana had a reputation as the marines of rehab. Basic training was hell."
While she was still in rehab, her counselors allowed James to record. One of her first songs was "Feeling Uneasy," which James said captured her at rock bottom. This would later appear on the album Come a Little Closer. While still in treatment, she became romantically involved with a man who had been in and out of rehab. Within a year of leaving Tarzana, both were once again using drugs. Her problems with substance abuse continued into the 1980s. "By the early '80s, she was scraping by, lucky to play occasional gigs for her die-hard gay fans at the Stud on Folsom Street," wrote Selvin. "She turned 50 in the Betty Ford Clinic and, this time, it worked. She found a new manager, Lupe De Leon of Oakland, who trained for handling James by working as a probation officer."
In 1988 James made The Seven Year Itch for Island Records; aptly titled, it marked her first record contract in seven years. James sought to regain her raw sound for this album, and she had another goal: "I wanted to make an album that was saying a woman is no different than a man," she stated in the New York Times. "A woman can sing just as strong songs. She can be just as raunchy and just as weak. And I like the whole challenge of a woman standing up there and telling a man where to get off."
"For my money, Etta's one of the pioneers," wrote legendary producer Jerry Wexler in the book Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music. Wexler produced two of James's albums, including 1992's The Right Time. Wexler wrote that James was "up there with her label mates at Chess: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry ... Like Aretha [Franklin], Etta is a church in herself, her voice a mighty instrument, her musical personality able to express an extraordinary range of moods."
In a career retrospective of the artist, Billboard's Jim Bessman noted that "her drug abuse didn't get in the way of her magnificent vocalizing, as demonstrated by her recordings throughout the '70s and '80s." Mystery Lady was her first project for the Private label. The collection of Billie Holiday songs earned James her first-ever Grammy in 1994. In the same issue of Billboard, Don Waller tallied her impressive 50-year-career as having produced "23 individual albums, a two-CD hits package, and a three-CD boxed set ... 54 different compilation albums and 11 film and TV soundtrack discs." James, along with David Ritz, wrote her autobiography, A Rage to Survive, in which she chronicled her lifelong problems with drugs, men, and obesity. Booklist called the book "a typical black pop-music as-told-to bio, though better than many of the others."
James continued recording, and anything was fair game for interpretation as shown on 2001's Matriarch of the Blues. "This set pops from the speakers like you're right there, funking in a packed nightclub as Etta growls and slow burns through songs by Al Green, Bob Dylan, and the Stones," wrote Interview reviewer Vivien Goldman, of the album. "A solid return to roots, Matriarch of the Blues finds Etta James reclaiming her throne---and defying anyone to knock her off it," wrote Parke Puterbaugh in Rolling Stone.
Late in her career, James was struggling with her weight, once estimated at about 400 pounds. The excessive weight was impeding her ability to tour and was causing serious health issues. James underwent a gastric bypass procedure and lost, according to some accounts, about 200 pounds while continuing to work. She told Essence in 2004 that she "didn't want to be fat anymore. I couldn't walk, and my doctor couldn't operate on my knee until I lost some weight. I was thinking that pretty soon they were going to have to bring me onstage with one of those harnesses they use for horses." For several years she had performed on stage in a wheelchair. "I am so happy that I am alive and that I can walk," she told Ebony in a 2003 interview. "I've gone through so much in my life. I should have been dead a long time ago, but I am still here, and I am the happiest I've ever been."
James was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. The next year she was awarded a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album, for Let's Roll, followed immediately by another Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album, for Blues to the Bone in 2005.
"Etta James has earned an honored position in the canon of tough women soul singers for her unaffected delivery and straightforward raunch," wrote Howard Mandel in a Jazziz review of Let's Roll. "Whether purveying doo-wop, Chess blues, Memphis strut, gospel classics, jazz standards, overblown studio productions, tributes to Billie Holiday, or guitar-heavy rock ... she has seldom delivered less than her full-bodied all. And though her voice, never a nuanced instrument, has now frayed and roughened ... James remains a powerhouse."
Etta James was hospitalized in January 2010 to treat an infection caused by MRSA. During her hospitalization, her son Donto revealed that James was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2009, and attributed her previous comments about Beyoncé Knowles to "drug induced dementia". On January 14, 2011 it was announced that James had been diagnosed with leukemia and was undergoing treatment. In May 2011 she was hospitalized with a urinary tract infection and the blood infection sepsis.
On January 20, 2012, the 73-year-old singer died from complications of leukemia. "She basically passed in my arms. I was able to share everything I needed to say to her, from praying to listing her accomplishments as a mother," her son Donto James recalled in an interview to People magazine the same day.