Born as Jamesetta Hawkins January 20, 1938 in Los Angeles, California music legend Etta James came into this world. Etta’s mother Dorothy Hawkins was only 14 at the time she had Etta which was a factor of the young girl being moved around to foster homes multiple times. She never knew her dad and when vocal coach James Earl Hines took her in to sing at the church and teach her, he would sometimes get Etta out of bed and beat her to force her to sing for people. This is looked at to be the reason Etta never liked singing on demand. Etta moved to San Francisco where she created her first musical group named The Creolettes at the age of 14. Multitalented Johnny Otis found the girls one day singing at a nightclub and took the girls under his wing.
Otis changed the Creolettes name to The Peaches, signed them to Modern Records, and changed Etta’s stage name from her birth name Jamesetta Hawkins to Etta James. Etta was a very spunky girl with an enormous attitude. When Georgina Gibbs covered James’ single “Dance with me, Henry” and it reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Etta was very angered. A similar incident happened when Beyonce Knowles, who portrayed Etta James in the 2008 movie Cadillac Records, performed James’ single “At Last” at the 2009 presidential inauguration ball. Etta expressed her distaste and anger at this at a Seattle concert.
After James’ time with Modern Records ended in 1960 she then signed onto the Chess label Argo where she recorded her debut album At Last! Where her signature hit “At Last” was featured on. An interesting thing about her most popular song “At Last” that few people are aware of is that it was actually not her most rewarded piece of work. Etta James faced many obstacles throughout her life from being a foster child, facing a heroin addiction, and sadly suffering from Alzheimer’s and leukemia which eventually led to her death on January 20, 2012.
Etta’s heroin addiction took a big toll on her career as she was in and out of rehabilitation centers during the early 1970’s. She avoided prison time when her husband and she were caught in possession of heroin and he took the fall having to serve a 10 year prison sentence. Etta was then forced to stay at the Tarzana psychiatric center for 17 months. Unfortunately her addiction was not conquered and she continued to battle it until she died.
Etta James success was only later recognized in the early 2000’s where she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. In 2003 Etta was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement award and soon came out with a new album “Blue Gardenia” in 2004. Her second to last album “Let’s Roll” was released in 2005 and won her the Grammy for Best contemporary blues album.
In May, 2009 at age 71 Etta James was awarded the Soul/Blues Female Artist of the Year award from the Blues Foundation for the ninth time! The very next year while she was touring, she was forced to cancel many of her shows due to her gradually failing health after it was revealed that she was suffering from Dementia and Leukemia. Etta released her final album in November 2011, which was critically acclaimed and soon after died two months later.
After listening to the song “I’d Rather go Blind” you can’t help but have an appreciation for Etta. You can sense the despair in her voice like she really does not want that man to leave her. I love the way it crescendo’s or builds up the emotion throughout the song. I also love the song “I just want to make love to you.” The way she goes into her gravelly voice is really unique.