LA-native Etta James (born Jamesetta Hawkins) was born in Los Angeles on 25 January 1938. Her mother, Dorothy Hawkins, a 14-year-old groupie and jazz fan, put her daughter into the care of her landlady, ‘Mama’ Lu Rogers, when Etta was just six months old.
Etta would meet the man she believed to be her father, the pool shark Minnesota Fats, just once. Given such a scenario, it’s no surprise that church, not family, was integral to Etta’s musical upbringing.
After Mama Lu’s death, Dorothy moved Etta, aged 12, to San Francisco. “I joined gangs, stole, drank, smoked weed,” James later said. “I had to act tough because she never stayed home. I was on my own”.
At 14, she started The Creolettes, a harmony trio with sisters Jean and Abyssinia Mitchell. A year later they debuted with Roll With Me Henry, Etta’s answer record to Hank Ballard and The Midnighters‘ recent R&B hit, Work With Me, Annie.
Recording with West coast R&B bandleader and talent scout, Johnny Otis, Etta (just 15) had to forge her mother’s signature on the contract – Dorothy was incarcerated for prostitution at the time. in 1955.
Otis dubbed her ‘Etta James’, and with The Creolettes’ name changed to The Peaches, and Roll With Me Henry rechristened The Wallflower due to the original title’s sexual implication, James scored an R&B #1 in 1955.
Her hits (including Good Rockin’ Daddy) continued through the 50s, and by the time she left the Kent Modern stable in 1957, Etta was still months away from her 20th birthday.
In 1959 she was signed to Chess Records where she gradually evolved from an R&B shouter to a sophisticated soul singer.
All I Could Do Was Cry, My Dearest Darling and her duet with Harvey Fuqua, If I Can’t Have You, placed James at the pinnacle of the R&B charts.
Her extraordinary balance of emotional abandon tempered by technical control shone through on 1960s classics such as At Last, Stop The Wedding, Pushover, I’d Rather Go Blind and Tell Mama.
Released on 21 August 1968, Tell Mama became the first Etta James album to chart, making the US R&B Top 30. Etta didn’t have another hit single in the US and didn’t have a US Top 30 album for a further 26 years.
Like pre-Atlantic Aretha Franklin, Etta’s mighty talent lacked the direction it deserved, but her greatness always shone. But just when she should have been standing tall alongside Aretha, Etta’s career was sidetracked by heroin addiction, and she spent many years in and out of the Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital in Los Angeles.
An early-1970s comeback was marked by an expansion of artistic range as James began working with rock producers and handling contemporary material. Through steady touring (she opened for The Rolling Stones in 1978) and recording, Etta James taught a new generation to appreciate both the beauty and the raunch of the great black vocal-music tradition.
Her rousing When The Saints Go Marching In was a highlight of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics opening ceremony, and she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Later she would become addicted to codeine and battled with her weight – at her heaviest, she weighed almost 30 stone; a gastric bypass operation in 2001 reduced her to half that size.
Etta James was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in her later years and passed away in January 2012, aged 73, after complications from leukaemia.