Etta James was a Grammy Award winning iconic singer who was known for her hits such as “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “At Last”. Her birth name was Jamesetta Hawkins and she was born to a 14 year old single mother named Dorothy Hawkins on January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles, California. Etta was a child prodigy as a church gospel singer, and Dorothy encouraged her daughter’s musical talent. Etta never knew who her father was, so that never bothered her. Her mother had brief relationships with various men, so Etta was raised by a series of foster parents.
Etta began singing in the local church choir and made an appearance on the local radio stations in her home town. To gain better exposure to the music scene, she moved to San Francisco when she was 12 years old, where she formed a musical trio to perform with. Here she met bandleader who was also a talent scout. She began working for him and four years later, they recorded the song “The Wallflower” together. During this time, she adopted the stage name of Etta James, and formed a band called “The Peaches”. She also began recording some of her own solo tunes such as “Good Rockin’ Daddy”.
She signed with Chess Records and released her debut album “At Last” in 1960. It featured a variety of musical styles, such as jazz, blues and R&B. The album included several hits such as “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, “A Sunday Kind of Love” and “At Last” (which reached number two on the R&B chart and number 47 on the Billboard Hot 100). The same year, she released her second album titled “The Second Time Around” which included hits like “Fool That I Am” and “Don’t Cry Baby”. She then reverted to her gospel roots, and came out with new hits such as “Something’s Got a Hold On Me”, “In The Basement” and “I’d Rather Go Blind”.
Etta continued to work productively throughout the 1960s and 1970s despite several career highs and lows. Her work briefly suffered due to her unfortunate heroin addiction, for which she went to rehab. However, she produced the album “Tell Mama” in 1967 which was highly successful. In 1973, she earned a Grammy nomination for her album Etta James which was a combination of rock and funk. She then signed with Warner Brothers records and also performed at the opening of the 1984 Olympics ceremony in Los Angeles. Etta’s career continued into the 1990s, when she was well into her 50s. She went on tour, where she was known for her energetic stage performances.
She underwent gastric bypass surgery in 2003 which caused her to lose a huge amount of weight and enabled her to expand her vocal range. She earned a Grammy award for her album “Let’s Roll” the same year. This was followed by another album titled “Blues to the Bone” the next year which earned her another Grammy. Etta’s life was portrayed by singer Beyoncé Knowles in the film “Cadillac Records” in which Beyoncé sang her own version of the song “At Last”. Beyoncé also performed the song at President Barack Obama’s inaugural ball in January 2009, to which Etta reportedly took offence.
Etta James released her last studio album in 2011. It was titled “The Dreamer”. Shortly after the album’s release, it was revealed that she was in the final stages of leukemia, and also suffering from dementia and Hepatitis C. She died on January 20, 2012 at the age of 73. She is widely honored as one of the most influential and versatile blues singers of her time.