Etta James Biggest Hit, the renowned producer Jerry Wexler once referred to Etta James as “the greatest of all modern blues singers,” and she recorded a number of classic hits, including “At Last,” “Tell Mama,” “I’d Rather Go Blind,” and “All I Could Do Was Cry, few female R&B stars experienced the kind of consistent acclaim that Etta James did over the course of a career that spanned six decades.
James also led a rough-and-tumble life that could have served as the basis for a dozen soap operas, battling drug addiction and bad relationships while evading a variety of medical and legal issues. Despite having one of the most powerful voices in music, James only gradually came to the attention of the general public, appearing infrequently on the pop charts despite scoring 30 R&B hits, etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles, California, her mother, who had just turned 14 at the time, had no idea who her father was, though she subsequently claimed to have reason to think he was the notorious pool hustler Minnesota Fats.
James spent the majority of her childhood being raised by friends and family rather than her mother, and it was while she was living with her grandparents that she started going to a Baptist church on a regular basis. She was a natural in the choir thanks to James’ voice, and despite her youth, she rose to the position of soloist and sang with the group on local radio shows.
When James was 12 years old, her foster mother passed away, leaving her to live with her mother in San Francisco. With no adult supervision, James started to descend into juvenile criminality. However, James’ appreciation for music was also growing, and she founded the Creolettes with two of her friends.
The girls caught the attention of renowned bandleader Johnny Otis, who after hearing their song “Roll with Me Henry,” a racy response to Hank Ballard’s infamous “Work with Me Annie,” arranged for them to sign with Modern Records and record the song as the Peaches (the new moniker was derived from Etta’s longtime nickname).
Roll with Me Henry, now known as “The Wallflower,” became popular in 1955, much to Etta’s dismay. However, Georgia Gibbs would have greater success with her cover version. The Peaches split up after scoring with a second R&B hit, “Good Rockin’ Daddy,” and James went solo.
James’ solo career took a little to get going; she released a number of poorly received songs for Modern and spent several years performing in small venues before Leonard Chess signed her to a new record deal in 1960. James would continue to record for Chess Records and its affiliated labels Argo and Checker into the late 1970s. Together with producers Ralph Bass and Harvey Fuqua, she adopted a sound that combined the fervor of R&B with the elegance of jazz and achieved success.
While James was experiencing a career comeback, her personal life was not doing as well. She started using drugs as a teenager and became a heroin addict by the time she was 21. As the 1960s progressed, she found it harder and harder to juggle her habit with her career, especially as she fought with her Chess producers over royalties and dealt with a number of abusive relationships.
James’ career hit a rough patch in the middle of the 1960s, but in 1967 she started working with producer Rick Hall at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. She adopted a gritty, rougher approach, and with the songs “Tell Mama” and “I’d Rather Go,” she was able to return to the R&B charts.
Etta James was raised by foster parents who mistreated her as a youngster. She was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles and had a very turbulent life. She became well-known as a gospel prodigy by the age of 5, becoming well-known for her singing in her church choir and on the radio. She came to San Francisco when she was twelve, established a trio, and shortly after began working for the band’s leader Johnny Otis.
She collaborated with the Otis band to release Roll with Me Henry four years later. Her career took off after joining with Chicago’s Chess Records. Throughout the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, she continued to work with chess. She was terribly damaged by her heroin addiction in both her personal and professional life. She does seductive stage antics and displays a snarky attitude.
She had a contralto voice, and although she was initially promoted as an R&B and doo-wop singer, she eventually found success singing jazz and pop standards. Her exceptional voice, which was always soulful, was brilliantly displayed in tracks like At Last, Dance With Me Henry, and I’d Rather Go Blind. Etta James started having health problems as she approached her seventies and ultimately passed away from leukemia.
Career and Musical
Etta James was discovered by pianist Johnny Otis, and she cut her debut track, “Roll with Me, Henry,” in 1954. The song, a parody of Hank Ballard’s “Work with Me, Annie,” was so sexually explicit that radio DJs across the nation banned it. Throughout the late 1950s, James released a number of top-charting songs for Modern Records, including the 1955 smash “Good Rockin’ Daddy, she signed a recording deal with Chess Records in 1960, where she developed her vocal abilities and became a genuinely great performer.
James’s impassioned yet expert handling of a ballad was evidenced by classics like 1960’s “All I Could Do Was Cry” (1960). She also had tremendous hits with her much lighter, more pop-oriented compositions like “Stop the Wedding” (1962) and “Pushover” (1963). James’s drug issues severely hampered her career. James produced some of her best work during her healthy breaks in these decades, even if she only occasionally started recording again in the 1960s and 1970s. James continued to release hit singles in 1967, this time at the renowned Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. The number-one singles included “Tell Mama” and a cover of “Security” by Otis Redding.