Though Etta James needs no introduction, she has been aptly described as: "One of the great forces in American Music." "Considered by many to be one of the greatest vocalists since Billie Holiday." "Etta James embodies the heart and soul of R & B...an elemental force of nature. Put simply, Etta is one of the most emotionally charged vocalists God ever put on this earth." Jerry Wexler, of Atlantic Records fame, describes Etta James as "the greatest of all modern blues singers...the undisputed Earth Mother."
That's not overstating the facts, hardly. She has earned it -- and then some. Half a century has passed, and through it all, the ups and downs and turnarounds, Miss. Etta James still performs and records with an oh-so-soulful vengeance! Whether she's coming off all smooth 'n' sultry, or fiery 'n' funky, or beggin' 'n' pleadin' from a smoldering inferno to a sea of flames, sending off a quiet storm vibe or full-throttle raging, nobody does it better with passion, soul and intensity, decade after decade. BORN JAMESETTA HAWKINS in Los Angeles, CA, January 25, 1938, Etta James was a gospel singing prodigy at the age of 5. The congregation of the Saint Paul Baptist Church in South Central LA delighted in "the little girl with the big voice" while she was a member of the Echoes of Eden choir and under the vocal guidance of Professor James Earle Hines.
After a move to San Francisco in 1950, she formed "The Creolettes," a female trio. Etta wrote a risque answer song to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me Annie." Against her mother's wishes, she went back to LA and recorded "Roll Me Henry," with bandleader Johnny Otis producing his new discovery's first hit. He's credited with renaming Jamesetta Hawkins to Etta James. Etta's debut hit was renamed "The Wallflower" because of it's suggestive title, and was banned until she re-released it as "Dance With Me Henry" which topped the R&B chart for four weeks in 1955; Followed by her second big hit 'Good Rockin' Daddy', which rolled up the charts to number six. Her first smash hit made her a star and it's said she never forgot how eager the public was to hear a woman be a little suggestive. Follow-up recordings of "W-O-M-A-N" and "Tough Lover" proved to be ahead of their time, and are appreciated more now than they were then.
Also known as Miss Peaches, by the time she was 16, Etta was touring the US with Johnnie Otis & his band, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Nappy Brown, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, and others, while recording for Modern Records until 1958. Etta's golden recording years began in 1960 when she signed on with Argo, a subsidiary of the Chess Records organization. Immediately, her recording career kicked into high gear; not only did a pair of duets with her then-boyfriend (Moonglows lead singer Harvey Fuqua) chart, her own sides (beginning with the tortured ballad "All I Could Do Was Cry") chased each other up the R&B lists as well. Leonard Chess viewed James as a classy ballad singer with pop crossover potential, backing her with lush violin orchestrations for 1961's luscious "At Last" and "Trust in Me." But James's rougher side wasn't forsaken -- the gospel-charged "Something's Got a Hold On Me" in 1962, a kinetic 1963 live LP (Etta James Rocks the House) cut at Nashville's New Era Club and a blues-soaked 1966 duet with childhood pal Sugar Pie De Santo, "In The Basement," ensured that.
Although Chess hosted its own killer house band, James traveled to Rick Hall's Fame studios in Muscle Shoals in 1967 and emerged with one of her all-time classics. "Tell Mama" was a searing slice of upbeat southern soul that contrasted markedly with another standout from the same sessions, the spine-chilling ballad "I'd Rather Go Blind." Despite the death of Leonard Chess, Etta James remained at the label into 1975, experimenting toward the end with a more rock-based approach. There were some mighty lean years, both personally and professionally, for Miss Peaches. But she got back on track recording-wise in 1988 with a set for Island, Seven Year Itch, that reaffirmed her southern soul mastery.
The past decade of albums have been a varied lot -- 1990's Sticking to My Guns was contemporary in the extreme; 1992's Jerry Wexler-produced The Right Time for Elektra was slickly soulful, and her more recent outings have successfully explored jazz directions. After winning a long over-due Grammy for Best Jazz Performance for Mystery Lady, Etta James released another stunning tribute to her favorite jazz artists, the critically acclaimed Time After Time. On Love's Been Rough on Me, Etta mixes together a potent blend of rootsy R&B blues with a touch of Nashville. In 1998, she issued her first holiday album, Etta James Christmas. She also released Life, Love and the Blues, earning the 1999 W.C. Handy award for Soul Blues Album of the Year. And a list of newer releases continue.
In concert, Etta James is a sassy, no-holds-barred performer with occasional suggestive stage antics which are drawfed by her mighty talent. Today, Etta is more fulfilled by music than ever before. She maintains an active tour schedule, performing in clubs, concert halls, and festivals year round. With her high-energy Roots Band behind her, this Rock and Roll Hall of Famer continues to churn out live R & B and jazz with the same raw intensity and bold passion for which she has always been famous. She's paid her dues many times over as an R&B and soul pioneer; long may she continue to shock the uninitiated. And, long may she continue to win a legion of fans the world over, with an expressive vocal and soulful talent that has made her legendary.