Photo credits: Gilles Petard/Redferns
Etta James (pictured) was an iconic Grammy Award-winning singer who was most known for her big 20th century hits, such as “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “At Last.”
Her birth name was Jamesetta Hawkins. She was born in Los Angeles, California to a 14-year-old single mother named Dorothy Hawkins on January 25, 1938. Etta was a child prodigy as a church gospel singer. Her mother Dorothy encouraged her daughter’s musical talent. Etta never knew who her father was but that never bothered her. Her mother had brief relationships with various men. Etta was raised by a series of foster parents.
She began singing in the local church choir and made an appearance on the local radio stations in her hometown. To gain better exposure to the music scene, Etta moved to San Francisco, California when she was 12-years-old. Once there, she formed a musical trio to perform with. In San Fran, she met a bandleader who was also a talent scout. Etta eventually began working for him. Four years later, they recorded the song “The Wallflower” together. During this time, she adopted the stage name of Etta James.
She then formed a band called “The Peaches.” Etta also began recording some of her own solo tunes, such as “Good Rockin’ Daddy.” She eventually signed with Chess Records and released her debut album “At Last” in 1960. It featured a variety of musical styles, such as jazz, blues, and R&B. The album included several hits such as “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “A Sunday Kind of Love,” and “At Last” (which reached number two on the R&B chart and number 47 on the Billboard Hot 100).
That same year, she released her second album titled “The Second Time Around.” Etta’s sophomore album included hits like “Fool That I Am,” and “Don’t Cry, Baby.” She then reverted to her gospel roots. This inspired her to make new hits, such as “Something’s Got a Hold On Me,” “In The Basement,” and “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Etta continued to work productively throughout the 1960s and 1970s despite several career highs and lows.
Her musical work briefly suffered due to her unfortunate heroin addiction, which she went to rehab for. Through her obstacles, she produced the album “Tell Mama” in 1967, which was highly successful. In 1973, she earned a Grammy nomination for her album “Etta James,” which was a combination of rock and funk. She then signed with Warner Brothers and also performed at the opening of the 1984 Olympics ceremony in Los Angeles.
Etta’s career continued into the 1990s when she was well into her 50s. She went on tour — where she was known for her energetic stage performances. She underwent gastric bypass surgery in 2003, which caused her to lose a huge amount of weight. This enabled her to expand her vocal range. She earned a Grammy Award for her album “Let’s Roll” that same year. This was followed by another album titled “Blues to the Bone” the next year, which earned Etta another Grammy.
Etta’s life was portrayed by singer Beyoncé Knowles in the film “Cadillac Records.” In the film, Beyoncé sang her own version of Etta’s song “At Last.” Beyoncé also performed that song at President Barack Obama’s inaugural ball in January 2009. Etta reportedly took offense to this. After this, she released her final studio album in 2011. It was titled “The Dreamer.” Shortly after the album’s release, it was revealed that she was in the final stages of leukemia. She also suffered from dementia and Hepatitis C.
Etta James died on January 20, 2012, at the age of 73. She is widely honored as one of the most influential and versatile blues singers of her time.
Reference: Editors, Famous African Americans. (n/d) Famous African Americans: Etta James. Retrieved from https://www.famousafricanamericans.org/etta-james
*BlackThen.com writer and historian Victor Trammell edited and contributed to this report.