Born: Jamesetta Hawkins on Jan 25, 1938 in Los Angeles, CA
Died: Jan 20, 2012 in Riverside, CA
Styles: Early R&B, Soul-Blues, R&B
Few R&B singers have endured tragic travails on the monumental level that Etta James has and remain on earth to talk about it. The lady's no shrinking violet; her autobiography, Rage to Survive, describes her past (including numerous drug addictions) in sordid detail.
But her personal problems have seldom affected her singing. James has hung in there from the age of R&B and doo wop in the mid-'50s through soul's late-'60s heyday and right up into the '90s and 2000s (where her 1994 disc Mystery Lady paid loving jazz-based tribute to one of her idols, Billie Holiday). Etta James' voice has deepened over the years, coarsened more than a little, but still conveys remarkable passion and pain.
Jamesetta Hawkins was a child gospel prodigy, singing in her Los Angeles Baptist church choir (and over the radio) when she was only five years old under the tutelage of Professor James Earle Hines. She moved to San Francisco in 1950, soon teaming with two other girls to form a singing group. When she was 14, bandleader Johnny Otis gave the trio an audition. He particularly dug their answer song to Hank Ballard & the Midnighters' "Work With Me Annie."
Against her mother's wishes, the young singer embarked for L.A. to record "Roll With Me Henry" with the Otis band and vocalist Richard Berry in 1954 for Modern Records. Otis inverted her first name to devise her stage handle and dubbed her vocal group the Peaches (also Etta's nickname). "Roll With Me Henry," renamed "The Wallflower" when some radio programmers objected to the original title's connotations, topped the R&B charts in 1955.
The Peaches dropped from the tree shortly thereafter, but Etta James kept on singing for Modern throughout much of the decade (often under the supervision of saxist Maxwell Davis). "Good Rockin' Daddy" also did quite well for her later in 1955, but deserving follow-ups such as "W-O-M-A-N" and "Tough Lover" (the latter a torrid rocker cut in New Orleans with Lee Allen on sax) failed to catch on.
James landed at Chicago's Chess Records in 1960, signing with their Argo subsidiary. Immediately, her recording career kicked into high gear; not only did a pair of duets with her then-boyfriend (Moonglows lead singer Harvey Fuqua) chart, her own sides (beginning with the tortured ballad "All I Could Do Was Cry") chased each other up the R&B lists as well. Leonard Chess viewed James as a classy ballad singer with pop crossover potential, backing her with lush violin orchestrations for 1961's luscious "At Last" and "Trust in Me." But James' rougher side wasn't forsaken - the gospel-charged "Something's Got a Hold on Me" in 1962, a kinetic 1963 live LP (Etta James Rocks the House) cut at Nashville's New Era Club, and a blues-soaked 1966 duet with childhood pal Sugar Pie De Santo, "In the Basement," ensured that.
Although Chess hosted its own killer house band, James traveled to Rick Hall's Fame studios in Muscle Shoals in 1967 and emerged with one of her all-time classics. "Tell Mama" was a searing slice of upbeat Southern soul that contrasted markedly with another standout from the same sessions, the spine-chilling ballad "I'd Rather Go Blind." Despite the death of Leonard Chess, Etta James remained at the label into 1975, experimenting toward the end with a more rock-based approach.
There were some mighty lean years, both personally and professionally, for Miss Peaches. But she got back on track recording-wise in 1988 with a set for Island, Seven Year Itch, that reaffirmed her Southern soul mastery. Her following albums have been a varied lot - 1990's Sticking to My Guns was contemporary in the extreme; 1992's Jerry Wexler-produced The Right Time, for Elektra, was slickly soulful, and her most other '90s outings have explored jazz directions. In 1998, she also issued a holiday album, Etta James Christmas. She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001, and in 2003 received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. That year also saw the release of her Let's Roll album, followed in 2004 by a CD of new blues performances, Blues to the Bone, both on RCA Records. James then shifted gears and released an album of pop standards, All the Way, on RCA in 2006.
- Bill Dahl (All Music Guide)
Born Los Angeles, California mid-1930's
A singer with great vitality and the ability to modify her style as musical trends changed, Etta James remained a favority of rhythm & blues followers for decades. Among R&B female vocalists, only Dinah Washington and Ruth Brown have had more top 10 hits from the early 1950's to the early 1970's.
Like dozens of other soul stars, Etta James was brought to the limelight by Johnny Otis who had seen her playing the Fillmore in San Francisco in the early 1950's. While getting her financial feet on the ground, Etta stayed with Otis and his girlfriend where she penned "Roll With Me Henry" which became a hit when released by Modern Records.
During the mid-1950's Etta became one of the most popular members of Johnny Otis' show and had two more hits on Modern.
At the start of the 1960's, she signed a contract with Chess Records and began a new and more rewarding phase of her career. It was during this time that she had such hits as "All I Could Do Was Cry", "My Dearest Darling", and "If I Can't Have You", a duet with Harvey Fuqua (of Harvey and the Moonglows). On these cuts, her singing had a more gospel and blues content rather than the rough, strident inflections of old-time R&B.
In the mid-1960's her career was plagued by drug addiction. For months at a time she would be sidelined. But through it all she kept going and working when she could.
Her last album for Chess was cut in 1977 "Etta is Betta Than Evah". It was not a great album, but complied with the requirements for terminating her contract.
In the 1980's she played small clubs and special concerts.
This CD contains Etta's greatest work from her golden years at Chess. It is a MUST for any R&B collection!
Jerry Wexler, Atlantic Records' legendary producer, describes Etta James as "the greatest of all modern blues singers...the undisputed Earth Mother." Her raw, unharnessed vocals and hot-blooded eroticism has made disciples of singers ranging from Janis Joplin to Bonnie Raitt. James' pioneering 1950s hits - "The Wallflower" and "Good Rockin' Daddy" - assure her place in the early history of rock and roll alongside Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Ray Charles. In the Sixties, as a soulful singer of pop and blues diva compared with the likes of Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, James truly found her musical direction and made a lasting mark.
James was born Jamesette Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938. Though brought up in the church, she was drawn to rhythm & blues and rock and roll, and by her midteens had formed a vocal trio that worked up an answer song to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me Annie" entitled "Roll With Me Henry." The trio caught the attention of bandleader Johnny Otis, who recorded "Roll With Me Henry," which was retitled "The Wallflower" and topped the R&B chart for four weeks in 1955. James toured the R&B circuit with Otis and other artists and recorded for Modern Records until 1958.
It was at the Chicago-based Chess label (where she recorded for Chess and its Argo and Cadet subsidiaries) that she molded her identity as a singer of both modern blues and pop-R&B ballads. She was signed by Leonard Chess in 1960 and had her talent nurtured by producer Ralph Bass and mentor Harvey Fuqua (of the Moonglows). James crossed over to the pop market as an interpreter of soulful, jazz-tinged ballads such as "All I Could Do Was Cry," "My Dearest Darling," "Trust in Me" and "Don't Cry, Baby," which she sang without sacrificing her bluesy and churchy vocal mannerisms. In 1968, she adapted a grittier Southern-soul edge, cutting "Tell Mama" and "I'd Rather Go Blind," which remain among the most incendiary vocal performances of the era. All totaled, James launched thirty singles onto the R&B singles chart and placed a respectable nine of them in the pop Top Forty as well.
For much of her career James battled heroin addiction, which has added to her aura as a survivor. A cleaned-up James made a successful comeback in the Seventies, re-signing with Chess in 1973 and opening for the Rolling Stones in 1978. In 1984, she sang "When the Saints Go Marching In" at the opening of the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. James has subsequently remained active on the touring and recording fronts, cutting the Grammy-nominated albums Seven Year Itch and Stickin' to My Guns and reuniting with Jerry Wexler to record 1993's The Right Time with the simpatico Southern-soul musicians at Muscle Shoals Recording Studios.