Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles, California, to a 14-year-old mother, Dorothy Hawkins, who encouraged her daughter’s singing career. James would later say, “My mother always told me, even if a song has been done a thousand times, you can still bring something of your own to it. I’d like to think I did that.” James never knew her father.
By the age of 5, James was known as a gospel prodigy, gaining fame by singing in her church choir and on the radio. At age 12, she moved north to San Francisco, where she formed a trio and was soon working for bandleader Johnny Otis. Four years later, in 1954, she moved to Los Angeles to record “The Wallflower” (a tamer title for the then-risqué “Roll with Me Henry”) with the Otis band. It was that year that the young singer became Etta James (an shortened version of her first name) and her vocal group was dubbed “the Peaches” (also Etta’s nickname). Soon after, James launched her solo career with such hits as “Good Rockin’ Daddy” in 1955.
After signing with Chicago’s Chess Records in 1960, James’s career began to soar. Chart toppers included duets with then-boyfriend Harvey Fuqua, the heart-breaking ballad “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “At Last” and “Trust in Me.” But James’s talents weren’t reserved for powerful ballads. She knew how to rock a house, and did so with such gospel-charged tunes as “Something’s Got a Hold On Me” in 1962, “In The Basement” in 1966 and “I’d Rather Go Blind” in 1968.
James continued to work with Chess throughout the 1960s and early ’70s. Sadly, heroin addiction affected both her personal and professional life, but despite her continued drug problems she persisted in making new albums. In 1967, James recorded with the Muscle Shoals house band in the Fame studios, and the collaboration resulted in the triumphant Tell Mama album.
With suggestive stage antics and a sassy attitude, James continued to perform and record well into the 1990s. Always soulful, her extraordinary voice was showcased to great effect on her recent private releases, including Blue Gardenia, which rose to the top of the Billboard jazz chart. In 2003, James underwent gastric bypass surgery and lost over 200 pounds.
As she entered her 70s, Etta James began struggling with health issues. She was hospitalized in 2010 for a blood infection, along with other ailments. It was later revealed that the legendary singer suffered from dementia, and was receiving treatment for leukemia. Her medical problems came to light in court papers filed by her husband, Artis Mills. Mills sought to gain control over $1 million of James’s money, but he was challenged by James’s two sons, Donto and Sametto. The two parties later worked out an agreement.
James released her latest studio album, The Dreamer, in November 2011, which received warm reviews. A few weeks later, James’s doctor announced that the singer was terminally ill. “She’s in the final stages of leukemia. She has also been diagnosed with dementia and Hepatitis C,” Dr. Elaine James (not related to the singer) told a local newspaper. James’s sons also acknowledged that Etta’s health was declining and was receiving care at her Riverside, California, home.
Etta James died at her home in Riverside, California, on January 20, 2012. Today, she continues to be is considered one of music’s most dynamic singers.