James was not only an accomplished singer; she also championed social change by supporting organizations that promoted education and equality for both women and black people.
Even after her death, her music still influences musicians of today – from pop artists such as Beyonce and Christina Aguilera to hard-hitting bluesmen; its legacy lives on.
Her early years
Etta James was born in Los Angeles, California in 1938. Raised by parents with limited resources and no social life, her love of music gave her the courage to pursue a singing career. Joining a group called Creolettes under Modern Records’ label during the fifties saw their song Wallflower earn some success; after its breakup James struggled for hits until her breakthrough occurred at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals Alabama recording her comeback hit “Tell Mama”, making the top ten R&B single chart position as well as number 23 for pop charts!
James’s subsequent albums showcased her ability to cover various genres, ranging from funk and soul music, jazz, blues and gospel to country recordings which proved less successful than her urban contemporary efforts.
In the 1970s, her popularity declined and she struggled to find new fans. However, she did remain with Leonard Chess until 1975 and record more soul-based songs while also exploring rock and pop material.
At various points during her life, she experienced substance abuse and mental illness. In 1973, she was arrested for possession of heroin and spent 17 months at Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital where she met Malcolm X and joined the Nation of Islam. Unfortunately, however, marriage proved challenging for her as she often battled her partners and experienced marital difficulties herself.
Later on, she achieved greater success on the European music scene and recorded an album of jazz standards for Elektra Records. Additionally, she participated in a tribute album for jazz icon Ella Fitzgerald.
James won four Grammy Awards during her lifetime and was honored with induction into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Blues Hall of Fame. Her autobiography Rage to Survive was published in 1995. Despite experiencing difficulties during her life, she never gave up music despite facing personal difficulties, becoming beloved among fans of many genres such as pop. Many artists covered James’ song ‘Something’s Got a Hold On Me” including Brussels music act Vaya Con Dios and Christina Aguilera from Christina Aguilera sampling her song ‘Something’s Got a Hold on Me” from which numerous artists including Vaya Con Dios / Christina Aguilera/Flo Rida sampled his version for one song of her many memorable tunes & samples by rapper Flo Rida.
Etta James earned the respect of both music industry veterans and fans with her emotive ballads and hearty wails, earning four Grammy awards (including Lifetime Achievement), two Hall-of-Fames awards, as well as being inducted into both Rock and Blues Halls of Fames. However, her private life remained turbulent – she bounced checks, forged prescriptions, spent time in psychiatric hospitals while onstage she offered nuanced wisdom balanced with raw power – a talent truly unparalleled by other singers of her time.
NPR’s Neda Ulaby takes a retrospective of legendary singer Etta James. James began singing professionally as a five-year-old at St Paul’s Baptist Church in Los Angeles’ choir, before founding a trio known as Creolettes with two friends at 15. Johnny Otis gave them their big break when their debut hit Roll With Me Henry reached #1 on R&B charts despite radio stations refusing to play it due to its suggestive title.
After their group disbanded, James continued her solo career under Chess Records. Her single At Last is one of the world’s most beloved love songs; its soulful yet emotive sound perfectly captures the feelings associated with finding true love and the feelings of completeness and joy it brings – beyonce once covered the song while James’ version remains popular at weddings today.
After leaving Chess Records, James recorded for multiple labels and experienced a career renaissance during the late 1970s. She opened for Rolling Stones concerts, was featured in Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll documentary/concert film and produced tribute album to jazz great Billie Holliday. In the 1980s however, James struggled with drug addiction; she found herself frequently jailed or in rehab – however by 1990s, she had overcome these difficulties to record new material again.
At the end of her life, she made a successful comeback through several albums that showcased her jazz talent; one such album won a Grammy award for Best Traditional Blues Album: Blues to the Bone. Additionally, she recorded several albums with both Donto and Sametto James as sons of their mother.
Etta James was born to Dorothy Hawkins (aged 14) and an unknown white father (reportedly pool shark Rudolf Wanderone). At five, Etta began singing gospel at her local church under choirmaster James Earle Hines’ influence; by sixteen she joined a group known as the Creolettes with whom she scored her first chart hit with Roll With Me Henry (renamed The Wallflower for American release). Later she sang backup for rhythm and blues superstar Otis Redding before breaking out on her own.
James experienced various problems throughout her career, such as heroin addiction and bad relationships. By the time she recorded Tell Mama in 1967, she was already established yet on a path toward self-destruction. Following conviction of heroin possession and check fraud at Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital seventeen months later, drug use continued despite treatment being granted instead of imprisonment. Furthermore, James suffered from severe obesity weighing 400 pounds at its height; at one point needing motorized wheelchair assistance to access concerts.
James kept recording, winning over music critics and blues-soul enthusiasts throughout her turbulent life. However, it would take four decades before she would experience another major hit. Come a Little Closer was one of James’s finest works; following Chess Records in 1977 she signed with Warner Brothers to release Deep in the Night and Seven Year Itch albums.
James gained renewed fame toward the end of her career thanks to a number of 21st-century covers of her classic songs. Swedish DJ Avicii sampled Something’s Got a Hold on Me from 1962 for Levels by him in 2011 while rapper Flo Rida featured an Etta James sample on Good Feeling from 2010. Additionally she received the 2005 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Her earthy voice lit up popular hits such as “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” and wedding fave “At Last”, she died Friday of complications related to leukemia according to Lupe De Leon – she was 73 at the time and surrounded by husband Artis Mills and two sons Donto and Sametto James when she passed.
One might assume a life filled with jail stints, drug abuse and an addiction to hard drugs would leave her spirit broken; yet it didn’t. Her songs reflected both pain and anger in equal measures – yet still sound joyful; her voice had the richness and vibrancy of someone who’d seen everything yet wasn’t afraid to express herself boldly.
These qualities helped her rise to the forefront of R&B, blues and rock ‘n’ roll music scenes. James earned numerous Grammys and was honored with induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; Beyonce Knowles even played her in 2008 film Cadillac Records! Furthermore, James’ influence remained present among young artists like Adele who named James as an influence on her musical sound.
Though she suffered from addictions, she also became embroiled in legal disputes, bounced checks, and falsified doctor prescriptions. As a result, she sought mental healthcare in 1974 before writing her autobiography: Rage to Survive.”
At the core, she found strength in her struggles; turning them into music that would touch many and change some lives along the way.
James returned to her roots during her later years by recording traditional blues albums as well as jazz tributes like 1993’s tribute to Billie Holiday, known as “Mystery Lady.” James won a Grammy award for contemporary blues album produced with producer Jerry Wexler in 2003; these three albums included classic songs by Bobby Bland (Dreamer) and Guns N’ Roses (“Welcome to the Jungle”). Donations made in her memory may be sent directly to Rhythm & Blues Foundation.