James was renowned worldwide for the musical ballad ‘At Last’, on top of a career spanning over five decades. Her many public battles with drugs and illness were well publicized throughout the music industry and press, often outshining her talent and ferocity. She passed away after losing her long battle with leukaemia.
James was born Jamesetta Hawkins, Los Angeles, in 1938, to a 14 year-old Dorothy Hawkins and an unknown father in racially segregated LA. Given up soon after birth, she was fostered and brought up in an age of tension and hardships.
James would later go on to move back in with her biological mother, an often-incarcerated drug addict and criminal, after the death of her foster mother. It was due to her mother’s instability, that a teenage Etta began abusing drugs, a dependency which would stay with her till the later stages of her life.
In her youth, she began singing gospel at the age of five at her local church, it was rumoured the choirmaster punched her in the guts to maximise her sound. After being inspired by the music she heard on the radio, James formed a band with two teenage friends, calling themselves ‘The Creolettes’.
After their first audition, the trio garnered the attention of R&B musician and scout Johnny Otis (who coincidentally also died this week). Lying about her age and faking her mother’s signature, James transformed herself under the handle ‘Etta James.’
‘The Wallflower’, the first song she released as a solo artist, earned her a number one in the R&B charts, propelling the 17 year-old into the limelight.
During the early stages of her career, James was earning around $10 per performance, quickly going on the road touring with the likes of Tina Turner and Little Richard, gaining her wider recognition and a larger fan base. The successes James initially had in the charts then waned, but she remained a popular staple of African American working class clubs.
As James’ career progressed, so did her personal troubles. Her weight fluctuated at one point weighing 400lbs, and having been left by her boyfriends for other women on several occasions, James often wrote about and became the subject of her own songs.
Repeatedly turning to drugs, she was jailed twice. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that she finally conquered her addictions, shed her weight and was introduced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Beyoncé Knowles portrayed her in the film ‘Chess Records’, a film where Knowles was criticised for not having the veracity and boldness of James’ personality. Artists such as Adele, Candi Staton, Gladys Knight and Christina Aguilera have cited James as an inspiration with her burly, commanding voice and presence.
Etta James died on January 20 2011, just five days shy of her 75th birthday. She leaves behind a husband and two sons, and a five-decade of incredible R&B music.