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Etta James Biography

Updated on March 11, 2013

Early Years

She is a four time Grammy award winner and recipient of numerous other awards. She is Known for hit songs such as "Trust in Me," "Fool that I Am" and her signature song "At Last."

Etta James, born Jamesetta Hawkins came into the world on January 25, 1938 in Los Angeles, California to 14-year-old Dorothy Hawkins. At an early age she received her first vocal training there at the St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles California. The family moved to San Francisco in 1950. Once there, she and two other girls formed a Doo-Wop singing group. In 1954 when the girls were ready, the band's mentor Johnny Otis arranged an audition for the group in Los Angeles. Without the permission of her mother, Etta and her group members traveled to their audition.The song selected was called "Roll with me Henry" which would later be renamed to "The Wall flower." This song was an answer to Hank Ballard's song "Work With Me, Annie." Following the audition, the song was released in 1955 and it was a number one hit on the Rhythm & Blues charts. Also, Etta and the group members decided to name the group "The Peaches."

However, Etta and "The Peaches" separated soon after the release of "The Wallflower." For the remainder of the 50's, Etta continued to release new material. Her follow-up song was "Good Rockin' Daddy." This to was a hit for Etta in the fifties. James would release other songs during the 1950's, but a big influence on young Etta's style would be the time spent touring with Otis Redding and Johnny "Guitar" Watson.

Chess Records

In 1960 Etta signed with a subsidiary label of Chess Records called Argo Records. She began her career there with two duets "If I Can't Have You" and "Spoonful" sung with singer Harvey Fuqua. Etta's first major solo hit was with the Rhythm & Blues song "All I Could Do Is Cry." The song climbed the R&B charts reaching #2 in 1960. Etta followed up with "My Dearest Darling" in the same year; then she released her debut album At Last. This album featured all of Etta's hits from 1960 to 1961. Also in 1961, James released a second album "The Second Time Around."

The Chess Brothers believed that James had the potential to cross over to other Genres. Beginning with the hit single "At Last," they backed her up with strings and violins. During 1962, Etta continued her sting of success with some Gospel inspired hits such as "Something's Got a Hold on Me," and "Stop the Wedding." In 1963, James released her first live album "Etta James Rocks the House." That same year, Etta had a big hit with "Pushover." The song was a top ten R&B hit and it made the Top 25 Pop charts. "Pushover" was followed by two minor hits on the Pop charts "Pay Back" and "Two Sides (To Every Story)." Later the same year, she released her third album "Etta James."

Mid 1960's to 1970's

In the mid 60's, Etta began her fight with drug abuse, a battle she would fight for years to come. Consequently her career slowed to a crawl. Later in 1967 she begun to record again. Etta had a huge hit with "Tell Mama" released in 1968. This song made it to the top ten on the R&B charts and number 23 on the hot 100 list. Although Etta wasn't as successful as she was in the earlier 60's, she continued to have hit songs into the 1970's with songs such as "Loser Weepers" released in 1971 and "I Found a Love" released in 1972. In addition, sheremained a great concert attraction. In 1973 James released a self-titled album. This album was a mix of Soul, Blues and Jazz and from it came two minor hits and a Grammy nomination. The follow up album "Out On The Street Again" released in 1974 had good reviews, but produced minor hits. Etta continued to record under the Chess label until 1978. Her final album was "Etta Is Betta Than Evah." In the same year Etta opened for The Rolling Stones on the United States part of their tour and she performed at the Montreaux Jazz Festival, there in Switzerland.

1980's and 90's

After the 1980 album release "Changes," and for several years Etta's career stalled. However by 1989 she made a comeback with the album "Seven Year Itch" recorded at Island Records.Though this album she found a way to use the raw sound she had in earlier albums. In the same year, following the second release "Stickin' to My Guns," Etta collaborated with rap artist Def Jef on the song "Droppin Rhymes on Drums." This song helped to bridged the gap between Jazz and Hip Hop, which influenced the direction of Hip Hop music. In 1992 she released "The Right Time" on the Elektra label and later in 1993 Etta released "Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday" an album honoring Billie Holiday. In the same year Etta was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the following year "Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday" earned her a Grammy Award for her jazz vocals. A short time later James released "Time after Time" and later in 1998 she released her first Christmas album "Etta James Christmas."

2000 and Beyond

Going into the next millennium, Etta continued to perform and record her music. One of the first releases in 2000 was "Matriarch of the Blues." This CD received praise from fans and critics alike. In 2001 Etta was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Although she was getting the recognition that was long over due, she was severally overweight and needed to take drastic action soon. Etta found the courage to look into gastric bypass surgery. As a result of this decision and over time, she was able to loose 200 pounds. Later in 2003 she received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and in April of the same year, her star on the Hollywood walk of fame was unveiled. She released her last album under the Private Music label "Let's Roll" in 2005. The release earned her another Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. James was featured and portrayed in the 2008 movie Cadillac Records by actress and singer Beyoncé Knowles.This film was loosely based on the people and events at Chess Records during its golden years. Some other Chess artist portrayed in the film were Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. James went on to received the prestigious Soul/Blues Female artist of the year for the ninth time in 2009. Lastly, her final album "The Dreamer" was released in November 2011; following a brief illness, Etta passed away on January 20, 2012.

Etta James is truly a legend and a fighter. Despite the setbacks, heartache and being overlooked for years she has prevailed. She has inspired and influenced artist such as Janis Joplin, Rod Steward, Christina Aguilera, and The Rolling Stones. Most important of all, after all she has been though in her life, she is still Etta.

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    • Coolmon2009 profile imageAUTHOR

      Coolmon2009 

      5 years ago from Texas, USA

      @PlatinumOwl4 - Humm... that is something to think about; I haven't thought about Nancy Wilson. I will consider it, thanks for the idea. I agree with you on Beyonce singing Etta's signature song "At Last." The tactful thing to do was for her to allow Etta the honor. It is nice to hear from you again and thanks for your comments :)

    • platinumOwl4 profile image

      platinumOwl4 

      5 years ago

      coolmon2009, can't believe I did not comment on this. When she died I was in the mood of a Lavern Baker song, "all I could do was cry" Etta was another great artist who lifestyle substance abuse. I am amazed that so many artist on both side of the color line fall victim to this abuse but few people are arrested for suppling the product. She will remain great in my mind and I truly believe Beyonce' should have said " Mr. President, this is Etta's song allow her the honor to sing it at this great occasion" Great work. Now, I would love for you to do a special one for me the great Nancy Wilson, I met her once and I can't write past the first paragraph. Her voice is so seductive it take me to another place and time. If you can I would appreciate it.

    • Coolmon2009 profile imageAUTHOR

      Coolmon2009 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      @vocalcoach - Thanks for your kind words. I think "At last" is one of her best songs too. Also, I enjoyed reading your series on Frank Sinatra :)

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      8 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      I think that Ettas "At Last" is one of her best. Her musical journey was well documented in your hub. Thank you for all the time you put into this great piece of work. Thumbs up and awesome!

    • Coolmon2009 profile imageAUTHOR

      Coolmon2009 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      @dashingscorpio - Yes you are correct. Some liberties were taken with the movie "Cadillac Records" but is was entertaining. I would like to see a movie on Sam Cookie and Jackie Wilson too. Thanks for your feedback on this article.

    • dashingscorpio profile image

      dashingscorpio 

      8 years ago

      I saw the movie "Cadillac Records" and although I thought is was decent I couldn't help but feel there were some libetrties taken. I suppose this is true of all "based on or inspired by" life stories.

      One day I hope they make a movie about Sam Cook, Jackie Wilson, and Sammy Davis.

      You hub was filled with great factual data.

    • Coolmon2009 profile imageAUTHOR

      Coolmon2009 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Frank N. Blunt - Thanks for finding my profile here and I will try to listen to the song in your link.

    • profile image

      Frank N. Blunt 

      8 years ago

      I've just become familar with HubPages. Nice job here. Mama has been a favorite of mine. Here is another good song that I like

      [yt]1ix6pP--T24[/yt]

    • Coolmon2009 profile imageAUTHOR

      Coolmon2009 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      @billyaustindillon - I bet Etta put on quite a show. Thank you for your comments:)

    • billyaustindillon profile image

      billyaustindillon 

      8 years ago

      I saw her in Houston a few years back - amazing presence - a great tribute here Coolmon.

    • Coolmon2009 profile imageAUTHOR

      Coolmon2009 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Girish1000 - Thanks for your comments :)

    • Girish1000 profile image

      Girish1000 

      8 years ago from India

      Hi Coolmon,I don't know more about Etta but your collection of data is so good. Excellent work.

    • Coolmon2009 profile imageAUTHOR

      Coolmon2009 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      @mquee - Thank you for your kind words. Also, I enjoyed reading your article on Billy Graham.

    • mquee profile image

      mquee 

      8 years ago from Columbia, SC

      Thank you so much for an excellent tribute to one of my favorite singing artists. She is one of those artists who is in a class by herself. Very well written and enjoyable reading.

    • Coolmon2009 profile imageAUTHOR

      Coolmon2009 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      @tracykarl99 - Thank you for your kind words. I try to make my music articles as entertaining and educational as possible.

    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      I love going to your music-hubs; because, I know I will be in for some great tunes! This is a fascinating biography of an inspiring life. Thank you!

    • Coolmon2009 profile imageAUTHOR

      Coolmon2009 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Support Med - Yes I agree with you; her recognition was long over due. I am glad they didn't wait till Etta was deceased to give tribute to her.

    • Coolmon2009 profile imageAUTHOR

      Coolmon2009 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Dolores Monet - I know what you mean "At Last" is one of my favorites too. I am glad you like this article :)

    • Support Med. profile image

      Support Med. 

      8 years ago from Michigan

      Such a great singer! Her accolades were definitely overdue, but I am glad that she received them while still here. She has a unique/strong voice. Voted/rated.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      8 years ago from East Coast, United States

      I am so jealous of PWalker! It must have been incredible to hear Etta in person. Her song 'At Last' always brings tears to my eyes. Thanks for the tribute to a truly gifted singer.

    • Coolmon2009 profile imageAUTHOR

      Coolmon2009 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      @BkCreative - She is quite the lady. Glad you enjoyed the article and its nice to hear from you :)

    • BkCreative profile image

      BkCreative 

      8 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      Love love love Etta James. What a voice and what style. I have loved (and danced to) every one of her songs. And just the other night I was playing "Tell Mama" - super super super. And I do go to youtube to see her perform - thanks for the links!

      Thanks for a great hub! Yay! Rated up and more!

    • Coolmon2009 profile imageAUTHOR

      Coolmon2009 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      @PWalker281 - I am jealous..I wish i could have seen her performance in Washington DC too. Etta is impressive in the embedded videos contained in this article. I can imagine it is quite the experience to hear Etta in person. Thanks so much for your comments :)

    • Coolmon2009 profile imageAUTHOR

      Coolmon2009 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      @katiem2 - You are right Etta is quite the lady. I hope everything is going well in your life and I thank you for your comments :)

    • profile image

      PWalker281 

      8 years ago

      Thanks for writing this, Coolmon! I saw her perform in Washington DC back in the 90s at a "street" festival and concert. She could still belting them out! You've captured her essence in this well-written hub!

    • katiem2 profile image

      katiem2 

      8 years ago from I'm outta here

      Great videos oh how awesome Etta James is and thank you for bringing this great tribute to us, nice and pleasureable. Peace :)

    • Coolmon2009 profile imageAUTHOR

      Coolmon2009 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      @dahoglund - She is one of the greats, Thanks you for your comments :)

    • Coolmon2009 profile imageAUTHOR

      Coolmon2009 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Micky Dee - Thank you for that you make me smile and as always it is nice to see you :)

    • Coolmon2009 profile imageAUTHOR

      Coolmon2009 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      @lightning john - Thank you for your kind words. I try to create article that people will enjoy reading and viewing :)

    • Coolmon2009 profile imageAUTHOR

      Coolmon2009 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Pamela99 - I know what you mean "At Last" is one of my favorites too. Nice to hear from you again :)

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      This is a singer that I was totally unaware of. Thanks for the introduction.

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 

      8 years ago

      Oh yeah! I hit the music first! My, my, my! "Something deep down in my soul...I'd rather go blind...than to see you walk away..." I'll be here a while. God bless you Coolmon!

    • lightning john profile image

      lightning john 

      8 years ago from Florida

      Beautiful ! I love her music. This is a very well written hub Coolman, I appreciate all the work that you have put into it. It shows that you not only have great taste in music, but also that you are a very articulate writer.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      8 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Coolmon, This is a great tribute to Etta James. I knew very little about her life before but have always liked her as a singer. At Last is one of my favorites. Great hub.

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