Photo credits: The Everett Collection/Peter Dazeley/Getty Images
Etta James (pictured) was heralded for merging the R&B and rock and roll music divide. The admirers of James’ talent dubbed her “Miss Peaches” and “The Matriarch of R&B.”
Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles, California, to 14-year-old Dorothy Hawkins. Her father was reportedly Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone, a pool playeJames was raised in a variety of foster parent households — owing to the unavailability of both her father and mother. In multiple instances, James identified her mother as a “mystery lady.”
When she was five years of age, James Earle Hines, head of the Echoes of Eden choir, gave her her first professional vocal lesson at the St. Paul Baptist Church in south-central Los Angeles. Following a night of heavy alcohol consumption, “Sarge,” James’ foster father, would awaken her well after midnight to cover songs for his cronies. James would wet her bed as a little girl. While performing for her foster father’s company, she stood in her urine-saturated nightclothes —- because she was scared of getting spankings for refusing to sing.
James moved to San Francisco, California’s Fillmore township with her natural mother after her foster mother passed away. She subsequently created a female ensemble called the “Creolettes.” Johnny Otis immediately began managing James’ newly minted girl group. He aided the young ladies with business and got them a recording contract with Modern Records. Otis renamed them “The Peaches” and altered their lead singer’s name from Jamesetta to “Etta James.”
Following her split with The Peaches, James made a splash by earning an additional R&B hit called “Good Rockin’ Daddy.” James’ contractual agreement with Modern Records expired in 1960. She then opted to sign to Leonard Chess’s Chess Records. Her first album completed for Chess Records was called “At Last.” It was released to received critical acclaim for its sonic versatility. The classic American album featured jazz standards, serious blues pieces, doo-wop flavor, as well as contemporary R&B compositions.
James maintained her singing career in the years following the release of “At Last.” However, she kept a low profile until 1984, which is the year she covered “When the Saints Go Marching In” at that year’s Summer Olympics’ opening ceremony. For most of her career, James was denied mainstream acclaim for her contributions to America’s music culture. In 1993, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Then, in 2001, James was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
She was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 and 2008 for “At Last” and “The Wallflower,” respectively. During her late-career years in 2003, James earned the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Also, on April 18, 2003, James was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Music megastar Beyoncé Knowles starred as James in the 2008 movie “Cadillac Records,” which was based on James’ 18-year-old record label, Chess Records.
James died of leukemia on January 20, 2012, at 73 years of age.