Etta James (January 25, 1938 - January 20, 2012) was an American blues, soul, R&B, and jazz singer and songwriter, who had her biggest success in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the mid 1950s she recorded "The Wallflower," better known as "Dance with Me Henry," which was an R & B hit for her and a major pop success for Georgia Gibbs. James is best known, however, for her 1961 ballad "At Last," which has been featured in many movies and television commercials since its release, and is often performed at contemporary weddings. Other hit songs by her include "Something's Got A Hold On Me" and "Tell Mama."
A Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner, James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
Early life and career
Jamesetta Hawkins was born in Los Angeles, California, to an unmarried 14 year old African-American mother, Dorothy Hawkins. She received her first professional vocal training at the age of five, from James Earle Hines, a choir director at St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
James' family moved to San Francisco in 1950, and she soon teamed up with two other girls to form a doo-wop singing group. When the girls were 14, band leader Johnny Otis auditioned them. They sang an answer to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie" called "Roll With Me Henry." Otis liked the song, and against her mother's wishes, James and the trio went to Los Angeles to record it in 1954. The trio renamed the song "The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry)" and released it in 1955. James named her vocal group The Peaches.
James' version of "The Wallflower" reached number two on the rhythm and blues charts in February 1955, but was undercut in the wider market by a rushed-out cover version by Georgia Gibbs on Mercury Records. Titled "Dance With Me Henry," Gibbs' version of the song became a number-one hit on the pop charts. The song's royalties were divided between Hank Ballard, Etta James, and Johnny Otis, and its huge success attracted the attention of the R&B world.
Soon after the success of "Dance With Me Henry," The Peaches and James parted company, but this did not halt her career. James soon went on tour with Little Richard, where she witnessed and experienced situations to which minors are not usually privy and acquired a drug habit.
James continued to record and release albums throughout much of the decade and enjoyed more success. Her follow-up, "Good Rockin' Daddy," became another hit. Other songs, such as "Tough Lover" and "W-O-M-A-N" failed to gain significant sales, however. James also toured with Otis Redding and Johnny "Guitar" Watson and has cited Watson as a significant influence on her style.
Despite her success, at age 21, James was battling with a heroin addiction. She eventually went to rehab in 1973. She also would have a history of failed romantic relationships, which added a depth of believability and pathos to her love songs.
The Chess years
In 1960, James signed a recording contract with Chess Records. The recording company released many duets with her then boyfriend, Harvey Fuqua, who was then the lead singer of the Moonglows. One of these duets, "If I Can't Have You," became a hit on the R & B charts in 1960. A solo blues song, "All I Could Do Was Cry," became an R & B hit for James.
Chess co-founder Leonard Chess saw the potential for James to go into a more pop-oriented direction, and 1961 Chess released "At Last." The song reached number two on the R & B charts and number 22 on the pop charts that year, becoming James' signature song. Other songs such as "Trust In Me" and "Something's Got a Hold On Me" also proved successful.
James' 1963 album Etta James Rocks the House, cut at Nashville's "New Era" club, also sold well. Other singles by her during the 60s sold mainly to R & B audiences. In 1967, "Tell Mama" became a Top Ten hit on the R & B charts and made James a household name once more. The follow-up, "Security" and proved that James still had staying power.
Despite the death of Leonard Chess, James stayed with the Chess label into 1975. Toward the end of the Chess years, she moved back into more rock-based songs.
Atlantic and beyond
James recorded for numerous other labels and continued to release albums, including 1978's Deep In the Night by Atlantic Records. She received accolades for her 1981 rendition of Randy Newman's "God's Song." Her 1988 album Seven Year Itch showed more of her soul side. In 1989, Etta recorded the song "Avenue D" with David A. Stewart, of Eurythmics fame. The song was featured on the soundtrack to the Robert Wise film, Rooftops.
Into the 1990s, she continued to record and perform. Her albums widely varied in styles and genres of music. Her 1992 soul album, The Right Time, was produced by Elektra Records. Jazz became the subject for many of her 1990s albums. In 1998, she released a Christmas album called An Etta James Christmas. To a younger generation, Etta is known for her version of the Muddy Waters song "I Just Wanna Make Love to You," used in television commercials for Coca-Cola. James' version was a surprise Top-Ten UK hit in 1995.
Later in life, James struggled with obesity, reaching more than 400 pounds and often needing a wheelchair. In 2003, she underwent gastric bypass surgery and her weight dropped by almost half. She continued to tour, finding enthusiastic audiences from fans of blues, R & B, and early rock and roll.
LegacyDid you know?Etta James bridged the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll music
James is regarded as having bridged the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll music. From 1989, James received over 30 awards and recognitions from eight different organizations, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences which organizes the Grammys.
She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001. In 2003, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked her number 62 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time and number 22 on their list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
James won a total of six Grammys, including three Grammys for her albums: Best jazz vocal performance for "Mystery Lady" in 1994, Best Contemporary Blues album for Let's Roll in 2003, and Best Traditional Blues album for Blues to the Bone in 2004. Two of her early songs have been given Grammy Hall of Fame Awards for "qualitative or historical significance": At Last, in 1999, and The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry) in 2008. In 2003, she was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. At Last has evolved into a perennial favorite that is often performed at weddings and dances, while Dance with Me Henry and Tell Mama are favorite R & B dance numbers.
Selected awards and recognitions
Grammy historyEtta James Grammy Award HistoryYearCategoryTitleGenreLabelResult2008Grammy Hall of Fame"The Wallflower" ("Roll With Me Henry")R&BArgo (1961)Inducted2004Best Traditional Blues AlbumBlues To The BoneBluesRCA VictorWinner2003Best Contemporary Blues AlbumLet's RollBluesPrivate MusicWinner2002Grammy Lifetime Achievement AwardWinner1999Grammy Hall of Fame"At Last"R&BArgo (1961)Inducted1994Best Jazz Vocal PerformanceMystery Lady (Songs of Billie Holiday)JazzPrivate MusicWinner
The Blues Foundation AwardsEtta James: Blues Music AwardsYearCategoryTitleResult2007Traditional Blues Female Artist of the YearWinner2006Traditional Blues Female Artist of the YearWinner2004Soul/Blues Album of the YearLet's RollWinner2004Soul/Blues-Female Artist of the YearWinner2003Soul/Blues Album of the YearBurnin' Down The HouseWinner2003Soul/Blues-Female Artist of the YearWinner2002Soul/Blues-Female Artist of the YearWinner2001Blues Hall of FameInducted2001Soul/Blues-Female Artist of the YearWinner2000Soul/Blues Female Artist of the YearWinner1999Soul/Blues Album of the YearLife, Love, & The BluesWinner1999Soul/Blues Female Artist of the YearWinner1996Soul/Blues - Female Artist of the YearWinner1995Contemporary Blues-Female Artist of the YearWinner1994Female Blues Vocalist of the YearWinner1994Soul/Blues Female Artist of the YearWinner1992Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the YearWinner1989Contemporary Blues Female ArtistWinner
Other awardsEtta James Award HistoryYearCompanyCategoryResult2006BillboardR&B Founders AwardWinner2003Hollywood Chamber of CommerceHollywood Walk of FameStar at 7080 Hollywood Blvd.2003Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI)Lifetime Achievement AwardWinner1993Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & MuseumRock and Roll Hall of FameInducted1990NAACPNAACP Image AwardWinner1989Rhythm and Blues FoundationPioneer AwardWinner
Chart figures from Billboard magazine. As Billboard did not publish an R&B chart in 1964, for this year only, R&B chart figures are from Cashbox.
- Gulla, Bob. Icons of R&B and Soul: An Encyclopedia of the Artists Who Revolutionized Rhythm. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0313340451.
- Jackson, Buzzy. A Bad Woman Feeling Good: Blues and the Women Who Sang Them. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2005. ISBN 978-0393059366.
- James, Etta, and Ritz David. Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story. New York, NY: Villard Books, 1995. ISBN 978-0679423287.
All links retrieved August 13, 2017.
- Etta James at Allmusic
- Etta James at Biography.com