Etta James, also known as Miss Peaches, was born Jamesetta Hawkins; January 25, 1938. Not exclusively a Blues act but hey, what a voice and like many in that small top league could sing and in her case improve just about anything. I picked this picture as that is how she looked most recently – the round faced young lady we see more often shows nothing of life’s passage.
Like the brilliant Aretha Franklyn, not what you might describe as pretty but of course artistry and power in that sort of magnitude transcends the merely superficial. Starting her career in the mid 1950s, she gained fame with hits such as ‘Dance With Me Henry’, ‘At Last’, ‘Tell Mama’ and ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’. She faced a number of personal problems, including drug addiction , before making a musical resurgence in the late 1980s with the album ‘The Seven Year Itch.’
Jamesetta was born in Los Angeles, California, to Dorothy Hawkins, who was only 14 at the time. Her father has never been identified, but was rumoured possibly to be white. Etta speculated that her father was the pool player, ‘Minnestoa Fats’, and met him briefly in 1987. Due to her mother being often absent carrying on relationships with various men, Etta lived with a series of caregivers, most notably ‘Sarge’ (who did for ‘caring’ what Claudia Winkleman does for sincerity) and ‘Mama’ Lu. James called her mother, “the Mystery Lady”.
James received her first professional vocal training at the age of five from James Earle Hines, musical director of the Echoes of Eden choir, at the St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles. She became a popular singing attraction at the church, and ‘Sarge’ (the so-called ‘carer’) tried to pressure the church into paying him money for her singing, but they refused. During drunken poker games at home, he would wake James up in the early hours of the morning and force her (through beatings) to sing for his friends.
In 1950 Mama Lu died, and James’ real mother took her to the Fillmore district in San Francisco. Within a couple of years, James began listening to doo-wop and was inspired to form a girl group , called the Creolettes (due to their light skinned complexions). The 14-year-old girls met musician Johnny Otis . Otis took the group under his wing, helping them sign to Modern Records and changing their name from ‘The Creolettes’ to ‘The Peaches’ and gave the singer her stage name by reversing Jamesetta into Etta James. She recorded ‘Dance With Me Henry’ in 1955. Originally the name of the song was ‘Roll With Me, Henry’ but was changed to avoid censorship due to the sexual implications of ‘Roll’. In February of that year, the song reached number one on the Hot R&B Tracks chart. Its success gave the group an opening spot on Little Richard’s national tour.
Bobby Murray, toured with Etta James for 20 years. He recalls that James had her first hit single when she was 15 years of age and went steady with BB King when she was 16. Etta James believed the hit single ‘Sweet Sixteen’ by B.B. King was about her.
Etta was recorded for the Chess subsidiary label Argo (later Cadet ) and had her first hit singles doing duets with Fuqua including ‘If I Can’t Have You’ and ‘Spoonful’. Her first solo hit was the doo-wop styled rhythm and blues number, ‘All I Could Do Was Cry’, becoming a number two R&B hit. Also Etta was recognizable singing background vocals on label mate Chuc k Berry’s ‘Back In The USA’.
Her debut album, ‘At Last!’, was released in late 1960 and was noted for its varied choice in music. The album also included James’ future classic, ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ and ‘A Sunday Kind Of Love’. In early 1961, James released what was to become her signature song, ‘At Last!’, (due of course to it’s being a great song and delivered with her dynamite voice) which reached number two on the R&B chart and number 47 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Later career: 1988–2012
Though she continued to perform, little was heard of Etta James until 1987 when she was seen performing ‘Rock & Roll Music’ with Chuck Berry on his ‘Hail Hail Rock & Roll’ documentary. In 1989, Etta signed with Island Records and released the album ‘Seven Year Itch’. She released a second album in 1989 titled ‘Stickin’ to My Guns’.
By the mid-1990s, James’ earlier classic music was included in commercials including, most notably, I Just Wanna Make Love To You’. Due to exposure of the song in a UK commercial, the song reached the top ten of the UK charts in 1996. Continuing to record for Private Music, she released the blues album Matriarch of the Blues in 2000, which had James returning to her R&B roots with Rolling Stone hailing it as a “solid return to roots”, further stating that the album found the singer “reclaiming her throne — and defying anyone to knock her off it.” James’ final album for Private Music, ‘Let’s Roll’, was released in 2005 and won James a Grammy for Best Blues Album.
In April 2009, the 71-year-old James made her final television appearance performing ‘At Last’ during an appearance on Dancing With The Stars . Etta carried on touring but by 2010 had to cancel concert dates to her gradually failing health after it was revealed that she was suffering from dementia and leukemia . In November 2011, James released her final album, ‘The Dreamer’, which was critically acclaimed upon its release. Etta announced via her manager that this would be her final album.
Etta was hospitalized in January 2010 to treat an infection caused by MRSA , a bacterium that is resistant to antibiotic treatment.
She was diagnosed with leukemia in early 2011. The illness was announced as terminal in December 2011. On January 20, 2012, long-time friend and manager, Lupe De Leon, announced that James had died with her husband and sons by her side at Riverside Community Hospital in Riverside, California. The world had lost one dynamite voice.