Etta James Biography

Jamesetta Hawkins, 25 January 1938, Los Angeles, California, USA. James’ introduction to performing followed an impromptu audition for Johnny Otis backstage at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. ‘Roll With Me Henry’, her ‘answer’ to the Hank Ballard hit ‘Work With Me Annie’, was retitled ‘The Wallflower’ in an effort to disguise its risqué lyric and became an R&B number 1. ‘Good Rockin’ Daddy’ provided another hit, but the singer’s later releases failed to chart. Having secured a recording contract with the Chess Records group of labels, James, also known as Miss Peaches, unleashed a series of powerful songs, including ‘All I Could Do Was Cry’ (1960), probably the best ever version of ‘At Last’ (1961), ‘Trust In Me’ (1961), ‘Don’t Cry Baby’ (1961), ‘Something’s Got A Hold On Me’ (1962), ‘Stop The Wedding’ (1962) and ‘Pushover’ (1963). She also recorded several duets with Harvey Fuqua.

Heroin addiction sadly blighted both James’ personal and professional life, but in 1967 Chess took her to the Fame studios. The resultant Tell Mama was a triumph, and pitted James’ abrasive voice with the exemplary Muscle Shoals house band. Its highlights included the proclamatory title track, a pounding cover version of Otis Redding’s ‘Security’ (both of which reached the R&B Top 20) and the despairing ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, which was later a UK Top 20 hit for Chicken Shack. The 1973 album Etta James earned her a US Grammy nomination, despite her continued drug problems, which she did not overcome until the mid-80s. A 1977 album, Etta Is Betta Than Evah, completed her Chess contract, and she moved to Warner Brothers Records. Her debut for the label, Deep In The Night, proved to be a critical favourite. A renewed public profile followed James’ appearance at the opening ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. The live Late Show albums, released in 1986, featured Shuggie Otis and Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, and were followed by Seven Year Itch, James’ first album for Island Records, in 1989. This, and the subsequent release, Stickin’ To My Guns, found her back on form, aided and abetted once more by the Muscle Shoals team.

James was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1993, prior to her signing a new recording contract with Private Records. Following the use of her version of Muddy Waters’ ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ in a television advertisement, she unexpectedly found herself near the top of the UK charts in 1996, giving this emotional and ‘foxy’ singer some valuable exposure. All her cover versions, from ‘Need Your Love So Bad’ to ‘The Night Time Is The Right Time’, are indelibly stamped by her ability to ‘feel’ the essence of a lyric and melody, allowing her to take over and shape a song. Her extraordinary voice was showcased to great effect on a slew of releases for the Private label in the late 90s and early 00s, including Love’s Been Rough On Me, Matriarch Of The Blues and Blue Gardenia. The latter, a smooth album demonstrating James’ love of jazz ballads, rewarded the singer by rising to the top of the Billboard jazz chart in 2001. The dynamic Burnin’ Down The House was recorded at the House Of Blues in West Hollywood, California, with both singer and band in fine form. Let’s Roll found James assuming production duties on a mainstream-leaning collection of material. In contrast, 2004’s Blues To The Bone featured James delivering a dozen gutsy readings of blues classics. James is really on a role at the present time, testament to a truly remarkable singer.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.