Born Jamesetta Hawkins, 25 January 1938, Los Angeles, California
R&B singer, one of the greatest. Nicknamed Miss Peaches.
Jamesetta Hawkins was the daughter of an Italian father (who dropped out of the picture almost immediately) and a 14-year-old Afro-American mother. She was initially brought up by her grandparents before being fostered. When Etta was 12, Lulu Rogers, her foster mother, died and she moved in with her mother (Dorothy Hawkins) in San Francisco. Etta admits she was a "wild child" and spent time in a school for juvenile delinquents.
At an early age, Etta showed a gift for music. She admired Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, her three main influences. After singing in church, she formed a singing trio with two of her school chums, Abbye and Jean Mitchell, with Etta taking the lead voice. The girls wrote "Roll With Me Henry" in answer to Hank Ballard's big hit "Work With Me Annie" and sang it for Johnny Otis after a performance of The Johnny Otis Show in San Francisco. Otis was sufficiently impressed to take the girls into an L.A. studio on November 25, 1954. He called them Etta James and the Peaches. Unsatisfied with the girls' performance, Otis brought in singer/ songwriter Richard Berry, who rearranged the song, assigning himself the role of male answer-back to Etta's lead vocals. Modern Records released the single at the end of 1954 as "The Wallflower", since the title "Roll With Me Henry" was considered too risque. By April 1955 the record had reached the # 1 position on the R&B charts and stayed there for four weeks. A toned-down cover by Georgia Gibbs for the white market, titled "Dance With Me Henry", topped the pop charts in May.
As a result of the success of "The Wallflower", Etta went out on tour with Little Richard, Nappy Brown, Bill Doggett and a host of other R&B stars, returning briefly to the studio to record a raunchy follow-up - "Hey Henry" - which failed to register. Undeterred, Etta was soon back in the studio with the Maxwell Davis Band to record her second big hit for Modern, "Good Rockin' Daddy", which charted in November 1955, peaking at # 6. At that point, it seemed that 17-year-old Etta James had arrived and that the future would consist of one hit after another. Inexplicably, this was not the case. She would not return to any kind of chart until March 1960, when she was a newly-signed Argo Records artist. The Biharis and their A&R staff at Modern tried everything to get a hit on Etta. They sent her to New Orleans (with Richard Berry and Jimmy Beasley) in June 1956 to record frantic rock 'n' roll in the shape of "Tough Lover", with Lee Allen blowing his lungs out on the "Long Tall Sally"-styled sax solo. They recorded rocked up versions of gospel standards by Etta's heroine Sister Rosetta Tharpe ("That's All", "Strange Things Happening") and novelties ("Shortnin' Bread Rock"). They allowed her to cut some duets with her boyfriend Harvey Fuqua (moonlighting from his Chess contract with the Moonglows), which were released under the alias of Betty And Dupree ("I Hope You're Satisfied"/"If It Ain't One Thing", 1959, on the Kent subsidiary). Nothing charted. The quality of Etta's Modern and Kent repertoire is largely above reproach, though, and for rock n roll fans this is her most interesting period.
At the urging of Harvey Fuqua, Etta cut loose from Modern and signed with Chess Records in Chicago in late 1959. She was to spend the next seventeen years under the Chess umbrella, through good times and bad. From 1960 to 1964 her records were released on Argo, from 1965-69 on Cadet and in the 1970s on Chess proper. Her first Argo single, "All I Could Do Was Cry" (co- written by Berry Gordy), returned her to the charts (# 2 R&B in the spring of 1960) and also gave her her first pop hit (# 33). New duets with Fuqua were also successful, first "If I Can't Have You", then "Spoonful". These two were credited to Etta and Harvey and appeared on Chess. Her first release of 1961 was one of the greatest R&B couplings of all time. It paired her definitive rendition of the 1942 Glenn Miller hit "At Last" with Willie Dixon's R&B grinder "I Just Want To Make Love To You" (which reached the Top 5 in the UK 35 years later, in 1996!). "At Last" peaked at # 2 R&B (# 47 pop). Many of the 1960-61 recordings featured sumptuous string arrangements, courtesy of Riley Hampton, Etta's arranger at Chess. But by 1962 the violins were gone and her sound became more gospel-styled. After "At Last", there were several more Top 10 R&B hits ("Trust In Me", "Don't Cry Baby", "Stop the Wedding", "Something's Got A Hold On Me", "Pushover"), all of which also crossed over to the pop charts, but the 1963-67 period was relatively lean for Etta, partly due to a heroin addiction. She re-emerged in 1967 with more ballsy R&B numbers thanks to her recording at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, resulting in hits like "Tell Mama" (# 10 R&B, # 23 pop) and, in 1968, "Security" (# 11 R&B, # 35 pop). Gradually, her sales dropped. Her last pop hit was "Losers Weepers, Part One" (1970) and her last R&B chart entry "Piece Of My Heart" (1978). By then she was recording for Warner / Elektra.
She beat her addiction problems in the 1970s and was invited to sing at the opening of the 1984 Olympic Games in L.A. In 1987 she had a cameo role in the Chuck Berry tribute film "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll", singing "Rock n Roll Music" alongside Chuck.
Etta James has been one of the leading lights in both the R&B and pop fields for many years and she has a room full of awards to prove it. Among the honours bestowed upon her are an entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1993), a Lifetime Achievement Grammy (2003) and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (2003). In 2008 she was portrayed by Beyonce Knowles in the movie "Cadillac Records", which was loosely based on the history of Chess Records.
During the last years of her life, she suffered from leukemia, dementia and kidney problems. She died at Riverside Community Hospital on January 20, 2012, aged 73.
Autobiography : Etta James with David Ritz, Rage To Survive : The Etta James Story. New York : Villard Books, 1995. (Paperback Da Capo Press, 2003)
CD recommendations :
Discography (singles) : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/ejames.htm
Acknowledgements : Tony Rounce, Dave McAleer, Nadine Cohodas.
Dik, January 2012
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