Jamesetta Hawkins was born in Los Angeles, California in 1938. Her mother was fourteen and the singer always claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of Rudolf Wanderone, ("Minnesota Fats"). the legendary pool player. During her early life her mother Dorothy, was often absent and young Jamesetta was brought up by her relatives and friends. She grew especially close to her foster mother, Lula "Mama Lu" Rogers who appeared to recognize her gifted voice. Aged five, Jamesetta sang solo with the St. Paul Baptist Church's Echoes of Eden choir under the watchful eye of the musical director, Professor James Earle Hines. In 1950 aged 12, her foster mother died, and Jamesetta went to live with her mother in San Francisco. There she became a wild child and was eventually expelled from school. Her refuge was music, and aged 14 she had formed the doo-wop group Creolettes with two other girls. Johnny Otis, heard them and recorded an Etta James composition which was an answer to Hank Ballard's hit, "Work with Me, Annie."
Originally entitled “Roll with Me Henry," the song was renamed "The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry)" and released as sung by Etta James and the Peaches. It became an instant R&B hit when it was released in 1955.
Later the song was covered by white singer, Georgia Gibbs and became a massive hit on the pop charts.
None the less the success of Wallflower brought the marvellous voice of Etta James to the wider public and Etta James and the Peaches went on a nationwide tour of the US with Little Richard. The follow up "Good Rockin' Daddy" gave the group their second 1955 chart success but soon after Etta and the Peaches parted company.
Despite dwindling record sales Etta continued to tour sometimes appearing as Miss Peaches during this time she shared the limelight with many of the contemporary rock’roll luminaries as well as Jazz singer, Billie Holliday. Often on tour she took her pet monkey long before Michael Jackson and Bubbles. In 1960 she signed to Chess Records and the R & B hits soon followed starting with "All I Could Do Is Cry," quickly followed by "My Dearest Darling."
Working with Jerry Wexler she developed a jazzier style which led to a string of hits starting with "At Last" (1961).
Leonard Chess groomed Etta James for cross over Pop success and backed her recordings with string instruments. "Trust in me," gave her a second successful single and the gospel inspired, "Something's Got a Hold on Me" (1962) completed the trifecta for the versatile contralto.
During this time, she recorded duets with Harvey Fuqua (lead singer of The Moonglows) and Sugar Pie DeSanto as well as backing vocals including, “Back in the USA" by Chuck Berry.
This was the zenith of her recording career and more hits followed as Etta James demonstrated a broad stylistic range recording material from straight blues, romantic ballads, and jazz to pure pop. On the negative side an escalating disruptive social life complicated by addictions and abuse literally stopped her recording between 1964 and 1966. The soul album Call my name (1967) marked her return to the studio and the single “I prefer you” reached the lower end of the top 50 singles in the US.
Later in 1968, she returned to a more basic gut-bucket blues style and with guitarist Paul C. Saenz recorded the Tell Mama album which contains, the fabulous, "I'd Rather Go Blind."
Although she continued to have R&B hits into the 70s by this time popular styles in music had changed and she lost her cross over pop appeal. Etta was a major concert attraction however, and stayed with the Chess label until it folded. On reflection while she enjoyed much success at Chess label the artist felt cheated and artistically constrained. In 1974 Etta James entered a drug rehabilitation program and only once she won her fight with drugs and alcohol was she able to gradually rebuild her career. By the 80. Etta was back performing in small gay clubs and recommenced her recording career. She continued to break new barriers by singing hip-hop as well as reprising many of her classic R&B and soul songs. In 1996 she enjoyed her last chart success in the UK, with the Muddy Waters song "I Just Wanna Make Love to You" which had been used in television commercials.
Etta has continued to record and perform but was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2009. Two years later she was diagnosed with leukemia and the illness became terminal and Etta James passed away in 2012, She remains one of the greatest R&B and soul performers of the Age.
Worth a listen
Etta James and The Peaches
The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry) (1955)
Good Rockin' Daddy (1955)
All I Could Do Is Cry (1960)
My Dearest Darling (1960)
At Last (1961)
Trust in me (1961)
Don't Cry Baby" (1961)
Something's Got A Hold On Me" (1962)
Stop The Wedding" (1962)
Loving You More Every Day" (1964)
Tell Mama" (1967)
I prefer you (1967)
I'd Rather Go Blind (1968)
I just wanna make love to you (1996)
Etta James with Harvey Fuqua
If I Can't Have You (1960)
Spoonful (1961 )
Etta James with Sugar Pie DeSanto
In The Basement - Part 1 (1966)