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James, Etta

Etta James

Singer, songwriter

Etta James was once among the most woefully overlooked figures in the history of blues and rock. She began finally coming into her own in the 1990s, receiving industry awards that confirmed her status as one of the matriarchs of modern music. James influenced a variety of musicians, including The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Diana Ross, Janis Joplin, and even Christina Aguilera. She has been seen as bridging the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll. Recording some of the first-ever rock and roll records when she was a teenager in the 1950s, James had a unique view of rock's origins. Not limiting herself to rock, however, she went on to make potent soul records in the 1960s and 1970s, adding further polish to her lengthy career.

Born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles, James's start in life was not ideal. Her mother, Dorothy, gave birth at 14; her father was unknown. James has remained convinced that it was Minnesota Fats, the noted pool hustler. "My heart told me that Minnesota Fats was my father. There was also evidence to back me up. But [in the 1970s]…I didn't have the courage or means to confront him," James wrote in her autobiography.

Baby Jamesetta was placed in the care of Lulu Rogers, her landlady, when her mother proved to be an unwilling parent. James was raised in the church and sang gospel hymns in the St. Paul Baptist Church choir. She was a child prodigy, performing on Los Angeles gospel radio broadcasts by the age of five. "I'm not a braggart, but when I was a little girl people used to come from all over Hollywood to hear me sing," said James in a 2004 interview with Essence. "Here was this 5-year-old sounding like a grown woman. People were shouting all over the place."

After the death of Rogers in 1950, James went to live with relatives in San Francisco, when she was 12. According to Essence, James was "a restless woman-child, in and out of girl gangs and singing groups." When James was still a teenager, she formed a singing group called The Creolettes with two other girls. West Coast rhythm and blues titan Johnny Otis discovered James in 1954. "We were up in San Francisco," Otis recalled in Rolling Stone, "for a date at the Fillmore. That was when it was black. … I was asleep in my hotel room when … my manager phoned. He was in a restaurant and a little girl was bugging him: she wanted to sing for me. I told him to have her come around to the Fillmore that night. But she grabbed the phone from him and shouted that she wanted to sing for me NOW. I told her that I was in bed—and she said she was coming over anyway. Well, she showed up with two other little girls. And when I heard her, I jumped out of bed and began getting dressed. We went looking for her mother since she was a minor. I brought her to L.A., where she lived in my home like a daughter." Despite her determination to audition for Otis in his hotel room, James remarked later in Rolling Stone, "I was so bashful, I wouldn't come out of the bathroom."

"Roll With Me, Henry" Took Off

Otis took the Creolettes on the road with him in 1954, paid them each ten dollars a night, and changed their name to The Peaches. It was Otis who transformed Jamesetta into Etta James. The trio first recorded in 1953 with Modern Records, home to John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, and B.B. King. The group's first side was "Roll with Me, Henry," an "answer song" to Hank Ballard's leering hit "Work with Me Annie." The song, written by James, was eventually covered by "whiter-than-white Georgia Gibbs, whose 'Dance with Me, Henry' … outsold Etta's hit," according to Booklist. James, Otis, and Ballard split the royalties three ways. "That's one time when we were not unhappy with a white cover [of a song originally recorded by a black performer]," Otis told Rolling Stone.

After this success James went on tour with 1950s' rock and roll sensation Little Richard. "I was so naive in those days," James admitted in the same Rolling Stone piece. "Richard and the band were always having those parties. I'd knock on the door and they'd shout 'Don't open it! She's a minor!' Then one day I climbed up on a transom, and the things I saaaaaw.…" After her stint with Richard, James sang backup on records by soul greats Marvin Gaye, Minnie Riperton, and Harvey Fuqua; she also lent her voice to many 1950s hits by early rock legend Chuck Berry, an association that would lead to a longstanding friendship. With her ripe, whiskey-cured, brawling belts, James was well on her way to becoming queen of the blues.

Early Sixties Proved Ripe

James began an association with Chicago's Chess Records in the late 1950s, recording several numbers on Chess's subsidiary label, Argo. She made the move to Chess and then to Chicago with Fuqua's help. Fuqua is best known as the founding vocalist of The Moonglows. James was in love with Fuqua, but he did not return her affection. In fact, he left Chicago for Detroit and Motown, where he met and married Gwen Gordy, sister of Motown mogul Berry Gordy. Ironically, James's first recording for Chess about a jilted lover was co-written by Gwen Gordy.

In those early days, James, Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and many other fledgling greats lived in Chicago's low-budget Sutherland Hotel. "We were hungry, starving musicians," James revealed in Rolling Stone. This changed abruptly, however, when James hit the mother lode with ten chart-making hits from 1960 through 1963. In 1960 two of her songs made the rhythm and blues charts. In 1961 four of her songs hit the charts, including the slow and soulful number-two hit "At Last." In 1962 three of James's songs landed on the charts, including "Something's Got a Hold on Me," which went to number four. The year 1963 saw another chart-topper and in 1966, James recorded the blues masterpiece "Call My Name."

The following year she moved to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. It was there that she scored the biggest hits of her career: the self-penned, beautiful, aching "I'd Rather Go Blind" and the raw, rollicking "Tell Mama," which San Francisco Chronicle critic Joel Selvin called "one of the finest examples of Southern soul ever cut in Muscle Shoals, Alabama." In spite of her popularity, however, James was never able to break out of the black entertainment market in the 1960s. Ironically, her singing style of purring, pointing, and little-girl pouting was copied by singer Diana Ross, who was able to score hits in the white music market.

For the Record …

Born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of Dorothy; father unknown, but suspected to be noted pool player Minnesota Fats; married Artis Mills; children: Donto and Sametto (sons); four grandchildren.

Singer, 1943–; recording artist and concert performer, 1954–; discovered by Johnny Otis in San Francisco, 1954; toured with Otis, 1954; recorded first record, "Roll with Me, Henry," with The Peaches for Modern Records; toured with Little Richard; sang backup for Marvin Gaye, Minnie Riperton, Harvey Fuqua, and Chuck Berry; began recording with Chess Records, c. late 1950s; signed to Private Music, 1994.

Awards: N.A.A.C.P. Image Award, 1990; inducted into The Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, 1993; star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, April 2003; Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, for Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday, 1994; National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, Inc., Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, 2003; Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album, for Let's Roll, 2004; Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album, for Blues to the Bone, 2005.

Addresses: Management—DeLeon Artists, 1931 Panama Court, Piedmont, CA 94611.

James endured a lengthy string of legal problems starting in the early 1970s, due to a heroin addiction. "She was in and out of jails and rehabilitation programs, writing bad checks, driving stolen cars," wrote Selvin. "Her husband, Artis Mills, took a 10-year fall for her." She and Mills had met in 1969 and later married. Mills served seven years in Texas's Huntsville State Prison. When he was released, James was in rehabilitation. They eventually reunited and are still married.

Fell On Hard Times

In 1974 a judge sentenced her to a drug treatment program in lieu of serving time in prison. She was in the Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital for 17 months, at age 35. "It took a good-hearted judge to make me stop and examine myself. I was too stubborn, too willful, too hooked on junk to make the decision on my own. It didn't take a genius to understand how badly I needed therapy," James said in an excerpt from her 1995 autobiography, Rage to Survive. "Throughout L.A. County, The Family at Tarzana had a reputation as the marines of rehab. Basic training was hell."

While she was still in rehab, her counselors allowed James to record. One of her first songs was "Feeling Uneasy," which James said captured her at rock bottom. This would later appear on the album Come a Little Closer. While still in treatment, she became romantically involved with a man who had been in and out of rehab. Within a year of leaving Tarzana, both were once again using drugs. Her problems with substance abuse continued into the 1980s. "By the early '80s, she was scraping by, lucky to play occasional gigs for her die-hard gay fans at the Stud on Folsom Street," wrote Selvin. "She turned 50 in the Betty Ford Clinic and, this time, it worked. She found a new manager, Lupe De Leon of Oakland, who trained for handling James by working as a probation officer."

In 1988 James made The Seven Year Itch for Island Records; aptly titled, it marked her first record contract in seven years. James sought to regain her raw sound for this album, and she had another goal: "I wanted to make an album that was saying a woman is no different than a man," she stated in the New York Times. "A woman can sing just as strong songs. She can be just as raunchy and just as weak. And I like the whole challenge of a woman standing up there and telling a man where to get off."

"For my money, Etta's one of the pioneers," wrote legendary producer Jerry Wexler in the book Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music. Wexler produced two of James's albums, including 1992's The Right Time. Wexler wrote that James was "up there with her label mates at Chess: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry … Like Aretha [Franklin], Etta is a church in herself, her voice a mighty instrument, her musical personality able to express an extraordinary range of moods."

In a career retrospective of the artist, Billboard's Jim Bessman noted that "her drug abuse didn't get in the way of her magnificent vocalizing, as demonstrated by her recordings throughout the '70s and '80s." Mystery Lady was her first project for the Private label. The collection of Billie Holiday songs earned James her first-ever Grammy in 1994. In the same issue of Billboard, Don Waller tallied her impressive 50-year-career as having produced "23 individual albums, a two-CD hits package, and a three-CD boxed set … 54 different compilation albums and 11 film and TV soundtrack discs." James, along with David Ritz, wrote her autobiography, A Rage to Survive, in which she chronicled her lifelong problems with drugs, men, and obesity. Booklist called the book "a typical black pop-music as-told-to bio, though better than many of the others."

"Matriarch of the Blues"

James continued recording, and anything was fair game for interpretation as shown on 2001's Matriarch of the Blues. "This set pops from the speakers like you're right there, funking in a packed nightclub as Etta growls and slow burns through songs by Al Green, Bob Dylan, and the Stones," wrote Interview reviewer Vivien Goldman, of the album. "A solid return to roots, Matriarch of the Blues finds Etta James reclaiming her throne—and defying anyone to knock her off it," wrote Parke Puterbaugh in Rolling Stone.

Late in her career, James was struggling with her weight, once estimated at about 400 pounds. The excessive weight was impeding her ability to tour and was causing serious health issues. James underwent a gastric bypass procedure and lost, according to some accounts, about 200 pounds while continuing to work. She told Essence in 2004 that she "didn't want to be fat anymore. I couldn't walk, and my doctor couldn't operate on my knee until I lost some weight. I was thinking that pretty soon they were going to have to bring me onstage with one of those harnesses they use for horses." For several years she had performed on stage in a wheelchair. "I am so happy that I am alive and that I can walk," she told Ebony in a 2003 interview. "I've gone through so much in my life. I should have been dead a long time ago, but I am still here, and I am the happiest I've ever been."

James was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. The next year she was awarded a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album, for Let's Roll, followed immediately by another Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album, for Blues to the Bone in 2005.

"Etta James has earned an honored position in the canon of tough women soul singers for her unaffected delivery and straightforward raunch," wrote Howard Mandel in a Jazziz review of Let's Roll. "Whether purveying doo-wop, Chess blues, Memphis strut, gospel classics, jazz standards, overblown studio productions, tributes to Billie Holiday, or guitar-heavy rock … she has seldom delivered less than her full-bodied all. And though her voice, never a nuanced instrument, has now frayed and roughened … James remains a power-house."

Selected discography

At Last, Cadet, 1961.

Etta James Sings for Lovers, Argo, 1962.

Etta James, Argo, 1962.

Rocks the House, Chess, 1963.

Top Ten, Cadet, 1963.

Queen of Soul, Argo, 1964.

Etta James Sings Funk, Chess, 1965.

Call My Name, Cadet, 1966.

Tell Mama, Cadet, 1967.

Losers Weepers, Cadet, 1970.

Etta James, Chess, 1973.

Come A Little Closer, Chess, 1974.

Peaches, Chess, 1974.

Deep in the Night, Warner Bros., 1978.

Changes, MCA, 1981.

(With Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson) Blues in the Night, Fantasy, 1986.

(With Vinson) The Late Show, Fantasy, 1987.

The Seven Year Itch, Island, 1988.

The Sweetest Peaches, Part I: 1960-66, Part II: 1967-75, Chess, 1989.

Sticking to My Guns, Island, 1990.

The Right Time, Elektra, 1992.

Live, Rhino, 1994.

Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday, Private Music, 1994.

The Heart of a Woman, Private Music, 1999.

Matriarch of the Blues, Private Music, 2000.

Blue Gardenia, Private Music, 2001.

Let's Roll, Private Music, 2003.

Blues to the Bone, RCA, 2004.

The Best of the Modern Years, Blue Note, 2005.

Sources

Books

James, Etta, and David Ritz, Rage to Survive, Villard, 1995.

Welding, Pete, and Toby Byron, eds. Bluesland: Portraits of Twelve Major American Blues Masters, Dutton, 1991.

Wexler, Jerry, and David Ritz, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

Periodicals

American Visions, October 1999.

Billboard,, August 11, 2001.

Booklist, June 1, 1995.

Boston Globe, November 6, 1986.

Down Beat, July 2003.

Ebony, September 2003.

Essence, June 1995. Essence, January 2004.

Interview, January-April 2001.

Jazziz, July 2003.

Jet, February 1, 1993; September 18, 1995.

Newsweek, January 20, 2003.

New York Daily News, November 3, 1988.

New York Post, June 18, 1974; February 13, 1981.

New York Times, June 28, 1974; November 19, 1982; November 20, 1988.

People, August 12, 1974; June 21, 2004.

Publishers Weekly, May 15, 1995.

Rolling Stone, June 15, 1974; August 10, 1978; November 13, 1997; February 1, 2001; October 30, 2003.

San Francisco Chronicle, June 22, 2003.

Time, July 17, 1978.

Online

"Etta James," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (March 15, 2005).

National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, http://www.grammy.com (March 15, 2005).

Additional information was obtained from an interview on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, September 25, 1998.

B.KimberlyTaylorand

LindaDaileyPaulson

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James, Etta

Etta James

African American singer Etta James (born 1938), whose career has spanned more than 50 years, has overcome many obstacles to establish herself as a powerful voice whose abilities span styles as diverse as blues, soul, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, and rock. She truly defies categorization.

James began her long career as a singer early, singing doo-wop as a teenager in the 1950s. She has endured highs and lows, hampering her own success at times through a reckless existence that included heroin abuse, but she ultimately conquered her addiction, redirected her struggles back into her music, and became an R&B legend. She has enjoyed equal success crooning blues ballads, belting out rhythm and blues and rock and roll, or interpreting jazz. While the ease with which she can navigate these various styles demonstrates her impressive skill, it has also served to confound the music industry as to how to categorize her. In the late 20th century and into the next, James has finally been widely acknowledged as one of the most talented singers of her era.

Sang Gospel at Age Five

James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, California, on January 25, 1938. Dorothy, her mother, was just fourteen years old when she gave birth to James, and she never overtly named the father. In her 1995 autobiography, Rage to Survive, James expressed her suspicion that her father was pool shark Minnesota Fats. Despite being a mother, Dorothy Hawkins continued to lead a life that included an active nightlife and some run-ins with the law; because of this, James's care was left largely to relatives and friends, including a middle-aged couple by the name of Rogers. James and her foster mother, Lula "Mama Lu" Rogers, became particularly close. By the age of five, James was living with her grandparents in Los Angeles. It was at this time, while singing solos with the St. Paul Baptist Church's Echoes of Eden choir under the direction of musical director James Earle Hines, that she began to get attention for her powerful voice. Soon she began performing gospel on a local radio broadcast.

James visited her mother, whom she addressed using her first name, when Dorothy Hawkins showed up every month or so. In her autobiography James described the weekends when she would go to the boarding house where Hawkins was staying. Watching her mother dress to go out at night while listening to Billie Holiday on the phonograph, the young girl admired her mother's beauty and confidence and thought she was a movie star.

When James was 12, Mama Lu Rogers suffered a series of strokes and died, leaving James to go live with Hawkins on Polk Street in San Francisco. In Rage to Survive, James confessed that San Francisco brought out her wild side, and she became involved with girl gangs. Life with her mother was unpredictable, and she was rebellious, untamable, and wanted to cause a fuss. She also wanted to be a star. James turned to music for refuge, and when she was fourteen she formed the Creolettes with two other girls. They tracked down Johnny Otis, a bandleader and promoter, when he was playing at the Fillmore. On the strength of the Creolettes' audition for him, Otis arranged for the girls to tour. Because of James's age, however, Otis needed parental permission for her to travel. Hawkins was said to be in jail at the time, so James forged her mother's signature.

Had First R&B Hit

Otis renamed the group the Peaches and reversed Jamesetta's name, creating the stage name that has endured to this day. The girls started off earning ten dollars per night for their work with Otis's revue. James first recorded with the Peaches in 1955 on the Modern Records label. The song was her own composition and was called "Roll with Me Henry," a coarse response to a song by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters called "Work with Me Annie." The song was rechristened a less-racy "The Wallflower" and became a top-ten hit on the rhythm and blues charts. It became an even bigger sensation when Georgia Gibbs, a white singer, subsequently recorded it under the title "Dance with Me Henry." Although James collected her share of the royalties for this version, the fact that another singer enjoyed more fame for her song irked her.

In 1955 James had another hit on the Modern label, "Good Rockin' Daddy." It became apparent that her talent overshadowed that of her friends, and she separated from the Peaches. Over the ensuing few years James, who was also known as Miss Peaches, toured the country on bills with stars such as Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Marvin Gaye, zydeco accordionist Clifton Chenier, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Minnie Riperton, and Chuck Berry. While on the road, she encountered a wide range of responses, from admiration to racism and intimidation. She found herself performing before large, eager crowds, even though her fame had dimmed somewhat since her 1955 hits. One of the highlights of this time was when James shared the stage with Billie Holiday and Count Basie as part of an National Broadcasting Company radio show in New York called Jazz Plus Blues Equals Soul. The performance occurred in the late 1950s, near the end of Holiday's life. In her autobiography James describes Holiday as looking old, tired, and weak, with swollen hands and feet. The encounter stayed with James, who, despite Holiday's physical challenges, saw in the singer a strong and uncompromising survivor—qualities she also saw in her mother Dorothy.

As the 1950s ended, James was often on the road and broke. But her fortunes began to turn after she arrived in Chicago, where she drew the attention of Leonard Chess and signed on with his label, Chess Records. Chess was just starting to earn recognition with artists like Berry and Diddley. In the early 1960s, James began a prolific period and became one of R&B's most successful singers. With producer Jerry Wexler, she recorded jazz tunes and soul ballads and ran up a string of hits for Chess's subsidiary label, Argo, such as "At Last"—which peaked at number two on the R&B chart in 1961—"My Dearest Darling," "Trust Me," and "All I Could Do Was Cry." In 1962 her "Something's Got a Hold on Me" was the most successful of her three hits that year, charting at number four. She also did some duets with her boyfriend, Harvey Fuqua, lead singer for the Moonglows. James's broad stylistic range was demonstrated in the material she recorded at this time, which included straight blues, romantic ballads, and pop. Blues-rock great Janis Joplin, who was influenced by James, even dropped by one of her recording sessions to observe the veteran blues singer.

Struggled with Drug Addiction

While Chess helped revitalize James's career, the company also exploited her, as it did many other artists. Royalties were withheld and the company was known to seize the publishing rights to artists' original material. James was living at the Sutherland Hotel, an historic and inexpensive hotel, along with other artists who were headed for stardom, including Marvin Gaye, Fuqua, and Curtis Mayfield. In her autobiography she admitted to being unhappy and restless during this time, in part due to a lack of input in the recording process. She complained that Wexler and Allen Toussaint, who produced her record Changes, while extremely talented, were both controlling. She felt there was too much tinkering and direction. Despite favorable critical reviews for the recordings she produced, James felt on edge in the studio.

By the time she was 21, James was addicted to heroin, and she struggled in relationships with abusive and violent men. Her addiction was so disruptive that she stopped recording almost completely between 1964 and 1966, but then pulled herself together enough to record Call My Name, an acclaimed blues album. She also recorded some duets with a childhood friend, Sugar Pie DeSanto, which resulted in the hit song "In the Basement." In 1967 James went to work for Alabama's Fame Studios, where she recorded a classic album that was well received; Tell Mama contains the standout ballad "I'd Rather Go Blind." Despite her hits, however, James was generally unknown outside the black population and a group of white rockers. In addition to Joplin, James influenced Rod Stewart and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones with her sincere, all-out style.

Although life for James was out of control by the early 1970s, she was able to arrive at live performances and recording sessions when necessary. To support her burgeoning heroin habit, she indulged in petty crime, including writing bad checks and forging prescriptions. She was even known to steal from friends and associates at times. In 1974, facing several years in prison, James finally entered a drug rehabilitation program as a resident at Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital, just outside of Los Angeles, California.

Rebuilt Career, Earned Awards and Honors

Ultimately, James was able to win out over her addiction, and then slowly began to rebuild her career. She busied herself with performances in small venues, often singing at gay clubs during the early 1980s. In her autobiography she credited these jobs giving her the encouragement to keep her going and noted that gay people related to her style. Struggling to pull her career together, James hopped from record label to record label, including Warner Bros., where she worked with Wexler, and T-Electric, where she worked with Toussaint. At Fantasy in 1986 she teamed with tenor sax legend Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and recorded two outstanding jazz albums, Blues in the Night and The Late Show. She was also affiliated with the Island and Elektra labels. James then toured with the Rolling Stones and performed at blues and jazz festivals, with the result that white listeners finally began to buy her albums. She sang during the Olympic opening ceremony in 1984, and her debut hit "The Wallflower" became part of the soundtrack to the hugely popular movie Back to the Future. The singer even made some guest appearances on television programs.

James went for seven years without a recording contract, then in 1988 she released Seven-Year Itch with Island. The next year she received the W. C. Handy Award and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation's Pioneer of the Year Award, and in 1990 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) honored her with two awards: an Image Award and an award for best blues artist for her album Stickin' to My Guns.

James continued recording at a furious pace and by the 1990s was considered an R&B legend. Her vaulted status was confirmed with her 1991 induction into the Bay Area Blues Society Hall of Fame and her 1993 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1994 she began to work with producer John Snyder at Private Music and released the critically acclaimed Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday, winning a Grammy Award for best jazz vocal in 1995.

During the 1990s James lived on a ranch in Southern California with her husband, Artis Mills, whom she had married in 1969, and her two sons, Donto and Sametto, as well as the family's nine dogs. By mid-decade she entered one of her career's most prolific phases. Mystery Lady followed on the heels of both Etta James Live from San Francisco and her autobiography, which was followed by Time after Time in 1995.

James's star kept rising into the next century. In 2001 she was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame, and on April 18, 2003, James was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Later that same year she won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, then returned for another Grammy in February 2004 for her self-produced album Let's Roll. Her 2004 recording, Blues to the Bone, is a compilation of her favorite blues classics, such as Muddy Waters's "Got My Mojo Working" and Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightnin'." James has also benefitted from being able to turn her career into a family affair; she often works with her sons, who back her and produce her recordings.

Books

James, Etta, with David Ritz, Rage to Survive, Villard, 1995.

Online

Babich, John, "Etta James—Matriarch of the Blues," Your Guide to the Blues,http://blues.about.com/cs/halloffame/p/biprotetta.htm (January 8, 2005).

"Etta James," VH1.com, http://www.vh1.com/artists/az/james–etta.bio.jhtml (January 8, 2005).

"The Legendary . . . Miss Etta James," NothinButDaBlues Web site,http://nothinbutdablues.bizland.com/FeaturedArtistMarch01.chtml (March, 2001).

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James, Etta 1938–

Etta James 1938

Formed Singing Group The Creolettes

Recorded String of Early 1960s Hits

Influenced Generation of Rockers

Selected discography

Sources

Singer

Etta James may have surprised herself by living long enough to become a big star. Her singing career, more than 40 years long, has included more highs and lows than her vocal range. For decades she subverted her own success by maintaining a reckless lifestyle that included serious drug abuse and a number of questionable love-life decisions. At various career stages she has been a rhythm-and-blues belter, a blues crooner, and a rock-and-roll screamer. Although her powerful voice has handled each type of material with equal skill, this style-hopping has made it hard for the music industry to categorize her. In the 1990s, James has finally gained widespread recognition as one of the most gifted singers of her time, much to the delight of hardcore fans who have remained loyal since she recorded her first hits as a teenager in the 1950s.

James was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles. Her mother, Dorothy, was only 14 years old when Jamesetta was born, and she never directly revealed the identity of Jamesettas father. In her 1995 autobiography,Rage to Survive,James asserts her belief that pool legend Minnesota Fats was her real father. Because Dorothy Hawkins led a some what wild, Bohemian lifestyle, Jamesetta was left in the care of a middle-aged couple named Rogers. Jamesetta became especially close to her foster mother, Lula Mama Lu Rogers.

Jamesettas powerful singing voice began to gain attention when she was still a small child. As early as age five, she was singing solos with her church choir, and soon she was even performing gospel music on local radio. As she got older, she began taking an interest in the smooth doo-wop music that was becoming popular on the streets. When Jamesetta was about 12, Mama Lu died after a series of strokes. She was then taken to San Francisco to live with her biological mother, Dorothy Hawkins.

Formed Singing Group The Creolettes

With the unpredictable Dorothy, Jamesettas home life was very unhappy. Increasingly, she sought refuge in music. She formed a girl singing group called the Creolettes, which quickly attained a sizable local following. When Jamesetta was 14, the Creolettes were discovered by bandleader and promoter Johnny Otis.

At a Glance

Born Jamesetta Hawkins, January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of Dorothy Hawkins; married Artis Mills, 1969; children: Donto, Sametto (both sons).

Singer, 1943; toured with bandleader Johnny Otis, 1954-55; recorded first hit, Roll with Me Henry, with the Peaches, 1955; toured with a variety of performers, including Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Marvin Gaye; recording artist for a variety of companies, including Modern, 1955; Chess, 1960-75; Warner Brothers, 1978; Island, 1988-93; Private, 1994.

Selected awards: W. C. Handy Award, 1989; NAACP Image Award, 1990; Blues Society Hall of Fame, 1991; Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1993; Grammy Award, Best Jazz Vocal, forMystery Lady,1995.

Addresses: AgentDeLeon Artists, P.O. Box 21329, Oakland, CA 94620.

Otis took the Creolettes to Los Angeleswith the forged permission of the underage Jamesettas motherand put them into his revue. He renamed the group the Peaches, and reversed Jamesettas name, creating what has remained her stage name ever since, Etta James.

In 1955 James made her first recording with the Peaches on the Modern Records label. Originally titled Roll with Me Henry, the song was an answer to Hank Ballard and the Midnighters hit Work with Me Annie. Since Roll with Me Henry was considered too racy a title for radio airplay, the song was renamed The Wallflower. It eventually made it into the top ten on the R&B charts. Although The Wallflower was a hit for James, it made an even bigger splash when it was subsequently recorded as Dance with Me Henry by white singer Georgia Gibbs. Although she collected a share of the royalties, James was outraged to see another singer get most of the glory for her song.

James had one more big hit on Modern in 1955, Good Rockin Daddy. She spent the next few years traveling the country at the bottom end of bills that featured stars like Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and zydeco king Clifton Chenier. Though she was still a minor, James grew up on these tours, meeting celebrities, witnessing their sometimes outrageous lifestyles, and receiving treatment that ranged from adulation to racist intimidation to outright theft. Her star faded somewhat from her initial hits of 1955, but she was still performing in front of large and enthusiastic crowds during this period.

Recorded String of Early 1960s Hits

As the 1950s drew to a close, James frequently found herself on the road and penniless. Landing in Chicago, she managed to attract the attention of Leonard Chess of the Chicago-based Chess Records, an emerging company that was making a name for itself with artists like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. During the early 1960s, James scored a string of major hits for Chess and its subsidiary labels, making her one of the biggest stars on the R&B scene. In 1960, two James songs made the R&B charts. Four more reached the charts the following year, including the soulful ballad At Last, which peaked at number two. In 1962, Jamess Somethings Got a Hold on Me reached the number four spot, the highest of her three hits that year. She also recorded several duets with Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows, with whom her relationship was romantic as well as professional.

The material that James recorded for Chess exhibited the full range of her stylistic capabilities, from tender love ballads to heavy blues to easy-on-the-ears pop. Although the people at Chess kept her career alive, they also exploited her, as they did many artists, finding ways to withhold royalties and grabbing the publishing rights to musicians original material. During this time, James lived at the historicand cheapSutherland Hotel along with many other musicians destined for stardom, including Fuqua, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield

Unfortunately, the pressures of constant touring wreaked havoc on her personal life. By the time she was 21 years old, James was addicted to heroin. Her problems with drugs made it all the more difficult for James to sustain her career. She also seemed drawn to violent and abusive men. By the mid-1960s, she had disappeared from the scene again. She rebounded in 1966 to record a widely acclaimed blues album, Call My Name. She also recorded a series of duets with singer Sugar Pie DeSanto, a childhood friend, and those sessions produced a big hit in In the Basement. In 1967 James began recording at Fame Studios in Alabama, and this period produced the well-received albums Tell Mama and Id Rather Go Blind.

Influenced Generation of Rockers

Although James remained largely unknown outside of the black community despite her hits, white rockers knew who she was. Many rock stars had become Etta James fans early on, and her no-holds-barred singing style influenced several of them. Janis Joplin and Rolling Stone Keith Richards were among those who were listening to James when she was still toiling on shoestring-budget tours.

By the early 1970s, Jamess life was very much out of control, although she managed to arrive at the recording studio and at live performances when required. In order to support her growing heroin habit, she found it necessary to become a petty criminal, forging prescriptions, and writing bad checks. When things got bad enough, she was not above stealing from friends and acquaintances. In 1973, faced with the prospect of several years in prison, James opted to enter the residential drug rehabilitation program at Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital outside of Los Angeles.

James continued to record during her rehabilitation, producing two more albums in 1974. During the rest of the 1970s and into the early 1980s, she kept busy performing in small clubs and occasionally at big-time blues and jazz festivals, usually bringing down the house. Finally free of her various addictions, Jamess career suddenly skyrocketed in the mid-1980s. After decades of failing to find a crossover audience, Jamess albums began to catch on with white listeners. As fans of her early work rose to positions of power in the entertainment industry, Jamess songs began to find their way into all sorts of unexpected places. She sang at the opening ceremony for the 1984 Olympics. The Wallflower, her first hit, was used in the soundtrack of the blockbuster movie Back to the Future. James also began making occasional spot appearances on television shows.

In 1988, after seven years without a recording contract, James releasedSeven Year Itch on Island Records. She continued to record at a frenzied pace, and as the 1990s unfolded James found herself elevated to the status of R&B legend. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. In 1995 James won her first Grammy award, after several nominations, for Mystery Lady, a collection of songs associated with the great Billie Holiday, with whom James had long identified. It is somewhat ironic that Jamess first Grammy came in the jazz category, after some 40 years spent chasing rhythm-and-blues dreams. Her follow-up album, Time After Time, also consisted mainly of jazz standards.

Having reinvented herself as a jazz singer, James seems to have finally fulfilled the promise that some in the music industry have always seen in her. Perhaps the same demons that haunted and hindered her career for so long have simultaneously fueled her drive to succeed. As James observed in her 1995 autobiography, Rage to Live, Ive learned to live with rage. In some ways, its my rage that keeps me going. Without it, I would have been whipped long ago. With it, I got a lot more songs to sing.

Selected discography

At Last, Cadet, 1961.

Etta James Sings for Lovers, Argo, 1962.

Etta James, Argo, 1962.

Etta James Rocks the House, Chess, 1963.

Top Ten, Cadet, 1963.

Queen of Soul, Argo, 1964.

Etta James Sings Funk, Chess, 1965.

Call My Name, Cadet, 1966.

Tell Mama, Cadet, 1967.

Losers Weepers, Cadet, 1970.

Etta James, Chess, 1973.

Come a Little Closer, Chess, 1974.

Peaches, Chess, 1974.

(With Eddie Cleanhead Vinson) Blues in the Night, Fantasy, 1986.

Seven Year Itch, Island, 1988.

Stickin to My Guns, Island, 1990.

The Right Time, Rounder, 1992.

How Strong Is a Woman, Island, 1993.

Mystery Lady: The Songs of Billie Holiday, Private, 1994.

Etta James Live from San Francisco, Private, 1994.

Time After Time, Private, 1995.

Sources

Books

James, Etta (with David Ritz), Rage to Survive, Villard, 1995.

Periodicals

Living Blues, autumn/winter 1982, p. 12.

Los Angeles Times, August 2, 1995, p. Fl.

Newsweek, November 21, 1994, p. 98.

Rolling Stone, August 10, 1978, p. 22.

Robert R. Jacobson

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James, Etta

Etta James

Singer

Roll with Me, Henry Took Off

Early Sixties Proved Ripe

Influenced Janis Joplin

Selected discography

Sources

Etta James is one of the most woefully overlooked figures in the history of blues and rock. She was never granted due credit for influencing tremendously popular acts like The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Diana Ross, Janis Joplin, and an entire generation of musicians who have lauded her as a bridge between rhythm and blues and rock and roll. Recording some of the first ever rock and roll records as a teenager in the 1950s, James had a unique birds-eye view of rocks origins. Not limiting herself to rock, however, she went on to make potent soul records in the sixties and seventies, adding further polish to a career that has spanned nearly four decades.

James has performed for black audiences in the South, blues fans in the North, rock fans on both coasts and even opened tours for The Rolling Stones. Her booming mid-range and throaty lower registerboth powerful enough to shake you out of your seatare her trademarks. Born in 1938 in Los Angeles, she was raised singing gospel hymns in her local church choir. James was a child prodigy, performing on Los Angeles gospel radio broadcasts by the age of five.

In the 1950s, when James was still a teenager, she formed a singing group called The Creolettes with two other girls. West Coast rhythm and blues titan Johnny Otis discovered James in 1954. We were up in San Francisco, Otis recalled in Rolling Stone, for a date at the Fillmore. That was when it was black. I was asleep in my hotel room when my manager phoned. He was in a restaurant and a little girl was bugging him: she wanted to sing for me. I told him to have her come around to the Fillmore that night. But she grabbed the phone from him and shouted that she wanted to sing for me NOW. I told her that I was in bedand she said she was coming over anyway. Well, she showed up with two other little girls. And when I heard her, I jumped out of bed and began getting dressed. We went looking for her mother since she was a minor. I brought her to L.A., where she lived in my home like a daughter. Despite her determination to audition for Otis in his hotel room, James remarked later in Rolling Stone, I was so bashful, I wouldnt come out of the bathroom.

Roll with Me, Henry Took Off

Otis took the Creolettes on the road with him in 1954, paid them each $10 a night, and changed their name to The Peaches. The trio first recorded with Modern Records, producing a track called Roll with Me, Henrylater changed to the less sexually suggestive The Wallflowerthat was considered a reply to Hank Ballards leering hit Work with Me Annie. In 1955 James made Good Rocking Daddy, which became a

For the Record

Born in 1938, in Los Angeles, CA; father was Italian; married to Artis Mills; children: Donto and Sametto (sons).

Singer, 1943; recording artist and concert performer, 1954. Discovered by Johnny Otis in San Francisco, 1954; toured with Otis, 1954; recorded first record, Roll with Me, Henry, with The Peaches for Modern Records; toured with Little Richard; sang backup for Marvin Gaye, Minnie Riperton, Harvey Fuqua, and Chuck Berry; began recording with Chess Records, c. late 1950s.

Awards: N.A.A.C.P. Image Award, 1990; inductee of the (San Franciso) Bay Area Blues Society Hall of Fame.

Addresses: Manager DeLeon Artists, 1931 Panama Court, Piedmont, CA 94611.

hit. Then, Georgia Gibbs recorded a cover of Roll with Me, Henry, calling it Dance with Me, Henry it became a pop smash. James, Otis, and Ballard split the royalties three ways. Thats one time when we were not unhappy with a white cover [of a song originally recorded by a black performer], Otis told Rolling Stone.

After this success James went on tour with fifties rock and roll sensation Little Richard. I was so naive in those days, James admitted in the same Rolling Stone piece. Richard and the band were always having those parties. Id knock on the door and theyd shout Dont open it! Shes a minor! Then one day I climbed up on a transom, and the things I saaaaaw. After her stint with Richard, James sang backup on records by soul greats Marvin Gaye, Minnie Riperton, and Harvey Fuqua; she also lent her voice to many 1950s hits of early rock legend Chuck Berry, an association that would lead to a longstanding friendship. With her ripe, whiskey-cured, brawling belts, James was well on her way to becoming queen of the blues.

Early Sixties Proved Ripe

James began an association with Chicagos Chess Record company in the late 1950s, recording several numbers on Chesss subsidiary label, Argo. In those early days, James, Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and many other fledgling greats lived in Chicagos low-budget Sutherland Hotel. We were hungry, starving musicians, James revealed in Rolling Stone. This changed abruptly, however, when James hit the mother lode with ten chart-making hits from 1960 through 1963. In 1960 two of her songs made rhythm and blues charts. In 1961 four ascended to the charts, including the slow and soulful number-two hit At Last. In 1962 three of Jamess songs landed on the chart, including Somethings Got a Hold on Me, which went to Number Four. 1963 saw another chart-topper and in 1966, James recorded the blues masterpiece Call My Name. The following year she moved to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. It was there that she scored the biggest hits of her career: the self-penned, beautiful, aching Id Rather Go Blind and the raw, rollicking Tell Mamma. In spite of her popularity, however, James was never able to break out of the black market in the 1960s; ironically, her singing style of purring, pointing, and little-girl pouting, was copied by Supreme Diana Ross, who was able to score hits in the white music market.

Influenced Janis Joplin

In 1969, during a closed recording session, James spied a young woman in the corner of the studio in wrinkled clothes, with a velvet purse and a bottle of whiskey. Whats she doing here?, James asked, as the story was reported in the New York Post Shhhh. Thats Janis Joplin, someone said, Shes a big star. James stared at her for a few moments, and then remembered Joplin from years earlier, when the sixties rock and roll star was only 13 years old. James had been playing in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Joplin walked right up the back stairs of the black club, and into Jamess dressing room. James let the girl visit for a while, and they talked about music. Throughout her career it was apparent that Joplin had been influenced by Jamess brassiness, rawness, and deep-voiced angst.

After a hiatus of several years, James returned to the public eye in 1973, back with Chess Records. Her style had changed somewhat: she no longer pouted; instead, she cried, pleaded, and shouted as she had as a child in the choir of Los Angeless St. Paul Baptist Church. A portion of the proceeds from her 1973 album went to the maintenance of Los Angeles and New York City methadone programs, which aid heroin addicts trying to get off the drug. For 15 years, James was addicted to heroin; in March of 1974 she kicked the habit after checking in to the Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital in California. That year she recorded Come a Little Closer. The song displays a curious tension: James moans and scats through a series of rich changes, tossing in heart-stopping descending arpeggios in what is widely considered the apex of secular spirit-singing.

In 1988 James made The Seven Year Itch for Island Records; aptly titled, it marked her first record contract in seven years. James sought to regain her raw, Southern sound for this album, and she had another goal: I wanted to make an album that was saying a woman is no different than a man, she stated in the New York Times. A woman can sing just as strong songs. She can be just as raunchy and just as weak. And I like the whole challenge of a woman standing up there and telling a man where to get off.

Etta Jamess mother once hounded her to forget rock and rolldevils music to herin favor of jazz. James has explored both. Later in life she became more experimental with rock. People dont know how to slot me, she continued in the Times. Thats been a problem all my life. I bump, I grind, I howlbut what am ISoul? Blues? Rock? Jazz? I like it all, she said.

Selected discography

At Last, Cadet, 1961.

Etta James Sings for Lovers, Argo, 1962.

Etta James, Argo, 1962.

Rocks the House, Chess, 1963.

Top Ten, Cadet, 1963.

Queen of Soul, Argo, 1964.

Etta James Sings Funk, Chess, 1965.

Call My Name, Cadet, 1966.

Tell Mama, Cadet, 1967.

Losers Weepers, Cadet, 1970.

Etta James, Chess, 1973.

Come A Little Closer, Chess, 1974.

Peaches, Chess, 1974.

Deep in the Night, Warner Bros., 1978.

Changes, MCA, 1981.

(With Eddie Cleanhead Vinson) Blues in the Night, Fantasy, 1986.

(With Vinson) The Late Show, Fantasy, 1987.

The Seven Year Itch, Island, 1988.

The Sweetest Peaches, Part I: 1960-66, Part II: 1967-75, Chess, 1989.

Sticking to My Guns, Island, 1990.

Sources

Boston Globe, November 6, 1986.

New York Daily News, November 3, 1988.

New York Post, June 18, 1974; February 13, 1981.

New York Times, June 28, 1974; November 19, 1982; November 20, 1988.

People, August 12, 1974.

Rolling Stone, June 15, 1974; August 10, 1978.

Time, July 17, 1978.

B. Kimberly Taylor

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James, Etta

ETTA JAMES

Born: Jamesetta Hawkins; Los Angeles, California, 25 January 1938

Genre: R&B, Jazz

Best-selling album since 1990: Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday (1994)


The remarkable career of Etta James has encompassed five decades of rhythm and blues music. Blessed with a powerful, "church-wrecking" voice, James is known for her soulfulness and versatility. She can sing a sophisticated ballad or rocking blues song with equal ease and never loses track of the emotion underlying her material. In performance she wrings every ounce of meaning from her songs, often crying as she sings the ballads. It is this commitment to emotional truth that has endeared James to her fans.

Born to an African-American mother and an Italian-American father, James sang in church from an early age. Her first hit was "Roll with Me, Henry" (1955), a song that had to be retitled "The Wallflower" because of its raunchy theme. In 1960 she began recording a series of hits for Chess Records in Chicago, including "All I Could Do Was Cry" (1960) and "At Last" (1961). By that point, James's style had fully developed: She sang with maturity and depth, shouting one minute and then softly purring the next. On the ballad "At Last," for example, she imbues the line "My heart was wrapped up in clover," with a girlish tenderness that brings out the poetry of the lyric.

James's years at Chess Records reached an artistic peak in 1967, when she recorded "Tell Mama" and the classic ballad "I'd Rather Go Blind." By this time, however, James was battling heroin addiction, a struggle that slowed her career down until the mid-1970s. Nevertheless, she continued recording excellent music, never fully leaving the spotlight. In 1978, after kicking heroin, she released Deep in the Night on Warner Bros. Records. Working with the legendary producer Jerry Wexler, James sounds relaxed and assured, ranging with customary ease over a variety of genres: rock, pop, and rhythm and blues.

By 1988, James was back in full force. That year she released Seven Year Itch, one of her finest albums. The production is clean and tight, the songs are all first-rate, and James sings with a ferocity that recalls her best 1960s work. Always developing as an artist, James fulfilled a lifelong dream in 1994 when she released Mystery Lady, a collection of songs associated with the great jazz singer Billie Holiday. It was one of the most mature albums of James's career, one in which her tremendous talents finally found a wider audience. James wisely chooses not to mimic Holiday's improvisational vocal style; instead she delivers each song in a straight-ahead manner, singing with sultry directness. On "Don't Explain" and "Lover Man" she lets her husky, seasoned voice float over the restrained arrangements, lingering on phrases like "Right or wrong don't matter / When you're with me sweet" to bring out deep shades of meaning. By turns passionate, graceful, and seductive, Mystery Lady is one of the most intimate recordings of the 1990s and won James a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. As a result of the Grammy and her 1993 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, James was receiving the popular recognition she had long been due.

Later in the 1990s James continued to broaden her horizons, recording another fine jazz album, Time after Time, in 1995. Although the album features the same lowkey ambience as Mystery Lady, James is less restrained, belting songs such as "Don't Go to Strangers" and "Teach Me Tonight" with the full power of her voice. In 1995 James also published an acclaimed autobiography, Rage to Survive, in which she chronicles her troubled life in honest, sometimes brutal detail. In 1997 James released Love's Been Rough on Me, an uneven but heartfelt album featuring material by top country songwriters. On "If I Had Any Pride Left at All," previously recorded by country singer John Berry, she imbues the line "I wouldn't be here now . . . not ashamed to crawl" with palpable ache.

Since Love's Been Rough on Me, James's albums have been less artistically fulfilling, sometimes hampered by trite musical arrangements and production. Still, she remains capable of powerful workwitness her fine live album from 2002, Burnin' Down the House. Here, James wraps her diminished but still potent voice around songs that have defined her career, including "At Last," "I'd Rather Go Blind," and the raunchy "Come to Mama." Her longtime backup group, the Roots Band, provides tight support with a fire that matches James's own.

One of the most moving and profound singers in rhythm and blues, Etta James has legitimately secured the overused honorific "legend." After decades of hard work and struggle, she has earned a lasting place in the annals of American music.

SELECTIVE DISCOGRAPHY:

Miss Etta James (Crown, 1961); At Last (Argo, 1961); Etta James Sings for Lovers (Argo, 1962); Tell Mama (Cadet, 1968); Come a Little Closer (Chess, 1974); Deep in the Night (Warner Bros., 1978); Seven Year Itch (Island, 1988); Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday (Private Music, 1994); Time after Time (Private Music, 1995); Love's Been Rough on Me (Private Music, 1997); Matriarch of the Blues (Private Music, 2000); Burnin' Down the House (RCA Victor, 2002).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

E. James, Rage to Survive (New York, 1995).

david freeland

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