Jerry Wexler, Atlantic Records’ legendary producer, describes Etta James as “the greatest of all modern blues singers...the undisputed Earth Mother.” Her raw, unharnessed vocals and hot-blooded eroticism has made disciples of singers ranging from Janis Joplin to Bonnie Raitt. James’ pioneering 1950s hits - “The Wallflower” and “Good Rockin’ Daddy” - assure her place in the early history of rock and roll alongside Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Ray Charles. In the Sixties, as a soulful singer of pop and blues diva compared with the likes of Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, James truly found her musical direction and made a lasting mark.
James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938. Though brought up in the church, she was drawn to rhythm & blues and rock and roll, and by her midteens had formed a vocal trio that worked up an answer song to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me Annie” entitled “Roll With Me Henry.” The trio caught the attention of bandleader Johnny Otis, who recorded “Roll With Me Henry,” which was retitled “The Wallflower” and topped the R&B chart for four weeks in 1955. James toured the R&B circuit with Otis and other artists and recorded for Modern Records until 1958.
It was at the Chicago-based Chess label (where she recorded for Chess and its Argo and Cadet subsidiaries) that she molded her identity as a singer of both modern blues and pop-R&B ballads. She was signed by Leonard Chess in 1960 and had her talent nurtured by producer Ralph Bass and mentor Harvey Fuqua (of the Moonglows). James crossed over to the pop market as an interpreter of soulful, jazz-tinged ballads such as “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “My Dearest Darling,” “Trust in Me” and “Don’t Cry, Baby,” which she sang without sacrificing her bluesy and churchy vocal mannerisms. In the late Sixties, she adapted a grittier Southern-soul edge, cutting “Tell Mama” and “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which remain among the most incendiary vocal performances of the era. All totaled, James launched thirty singles onto the R&B singles chart and placed a respectable nine of them in the pop Top Forty as well.
For much of her career James battled heroin addiction, which has added to her aura as a survivor. A cleaned-up James made a successful comeback in the Seventies, re-signing with Chess in 1973 and opening for the Rolling Stones in 1978. In 1984, James sang “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the opening of the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and through the late Eighties and Nineties remained active on the touring and recording fronts, cutting the Grammy-nominated albums Seven Year Itch in 1988 and Stickin’ to My Guns in 1990, and reuniting with Jerry Wexler to record 1992’s The Right Time with the simpatico Southern-soul musicians at Muscle Shoals Recording Studios. In 1993, James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a year later she recorded Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday for the Private Music label. The tribute album earned James a Grammy Award, and she recorded more than half a dozen albums for Private through 2003, including Love's Been Rough on Me, Matriarch of the Blues and Let's Roll. The Dreamer appeared in November 2011. James passed away on January 20, 2012 at age 73.