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Etta James

Etta James was born on 25/01/1938 in Los Angeles, California. Her birth name was Jamesetta Hawkins. She grew up with a series of foster parents as her biological mother would be frequently absent from their apartment in Watts. Etta would receive her first vocal training at the age of 5 from James Earle Hines at the St Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Hines would use physical abuse in the form of punching her in the chest to force her to sing from her gut. She developed an unusually strong voice and became a popular singing attraction. Her foster father "Sarge" James would try unsuccessfully to get the church to pay the family for her singing. Sarge was also abusive and would wake Etta in the early hours and force her with beating to sing for his friends. She would often wet the bed on these occasions and it would lead to her having difficulties with singing on demand throughout her career.
In 1950, her foster mother Mama Lu died and Etta's biological mother took her to the Filmore district of San Francisco. Etta started listening to doo-wop and formed her own girl group called the Creolettes.
When she was 14, she met the musician Johnny Otis. Otis helped the Creolettes sign with Modern Records and changed their name to the Peaches. He would also suggest that James change her name from Jamesetta to Etta. Etta James and the Peaches recorded Otis's song "Roll with Me, Henry", which James would be given credit for as a co-author.
In 1955, "Roll with Me, Henry" was released under the new name of "Dance with Me Henry" to avoid censorship as the title was considered risque. It reached number 1 on the Hot Rhythm & Blues Track chart and gave the group the opportunity to open for Little Richard on a US tour.
Whilst on tour with Little Richard, Georgia Gibbs recorded a version of "Dance with Me Henry" under the title "The Wallflower". It reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, which angered James. James left the Peaches and had another R&B hit with "Good Rockin' Daddy".
In 1960, James' contract with Modern came up for renewal and she decided to sign with Chess Records instead. She recorded duets with Harvey Fuqua for Argo Records, a label established by Chess. Her first singles with Fuqua were "If I Can't Have You" and "Spoonful". She would have her first solo hit with the doo-wop rhythm and blues song "All I Could Do Was Cry" which was a number 2 R&B Hit. Chess co-founder Leonard Chess saw James as a classic ballad singer who could crossover to the pop charts. He suggested that James had strings on the arrangements for her songs. The first song with a string arrangement was James' song "My Dearest Darling" which reached the top 5 of the R&B chart. In late 1960, James released her debut album "At Last!". James would also sing backing vocals for Chess Records artist Chuck Berry on his song "Back in the U.S.A".
In 1961, James released her cover of the song "At Last" from her debut album as a single. It reached number 2 on the R&B chart and number 47 on the Billboard Hot 100. Later in 1961, James released the album "The Second Time Around". It produced two hit singles, "Fool That I Am" and "Don't Cry Baby".
In 1962, James started to add gospel elements to her songs. She released "Something's Got a Hold on Me" which reached number 4 on the R&B chart and was a Top 40 pop hit. She then released "Stop the Wedding" which reached number 6 on the R&B chart.
In 1963, she had a hit with "Pushover" and she released the live album "Etta James Rocks the House".
In 1967, after a couple of years break from recording, she released more lively R&B numbers starting with "Tell Mama". The song reached number 10 on the R&B chart and 23 on the pop chart. She released the album "Tell Mama" later that year. The success of the album led to her becoming an in-demand concert performer.
In the early 1970s, James was suffering from a heroin addiction and would be in and out of rehabilitation centres.
In 1973, James released the album "Etta James" which featured a more rock and funk sound. It was nominated for a Grammy Award but did not produce any major hits.
In 1974, James released the album "Come a Little Closer" which was critically acclaimed but did not produce any hits.
In 1976, James released her last album for Chess called "Etta Is Betta Than Evvah!".
In 1978, James released the album "Deep in the Night" with Warner Bros, which featured a more rock sound. In the same year, James opened for the Rolling Stones and performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival. She left Chess Records and did not record again for ten years as she struggled with drug and alcohol addiction.
In 1984, James performed at the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles. She had contacted David Wolper requesting to perform.
In 1989, James signed with Island Records and released the albums "Seven Year Itch" and "Stickin' to My Guns". Also in 1989, James performed with Joe Walsh and Albert Collins at the Wiltern Theater, Los Angeles for the film "Jazzvisions: Jump the Blues Away". James would receive the NAACP Image Award in 1989 also.
James collaborated with the rap singer Def Jef for the song "Droppin' Rhymes on Drums".
In 1992, James recorded the album "The Right Time".
In 1993, James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Also in 1993, she signed with Private Music Records and recorded a tribute album to Billie Holiday called "Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday". In 1994, the album won James her first Grammy Award for "Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female".
In 1995, James recorded the album "Time After Time".
In 1996, James' song "I Just Wanna Make Love to You" was used in a UK commercial and reached the top ten on the UK charts.
In 1998, James released a Christmas album called "Etta James Christmas". She also released the album "Life, Love & the Blues" which featured her sons Donto and Sametto on drums and bass respectively. They became part of her touring band as well.
In 2000, James released the blues album "Matriarch of the Blues".
In 2001, James was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
In 2003, she received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Also in 2003, James was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 2004, James released the jazz album "Blue Gardenia".
In 2005, she released her last album for Private Music called "Let's Roll". It won the Grammy Award for "Best Contemporary Blues Album".
In 2006, James received the Billboard R&B Founders Award.
In 2009, James made her final TV appearance when she performed "At Last" on the TV show "Dancing with the Stars". In May, James received the Soul/Blues Female Artist of the Year award from the Blues Foundation.
By 2010, James had to cancel tour dates because of ill health as she was suffering from dementia and leukaemia.
In 2011, James released her final album called "The Dreamer".
On 20/01/2012, James died of leukaemia at Parkview Hospital, Riverside, California. She died just three days after Johnny Otis.

The Music History Calendar is written by the Blues Rock artist Marshland Pete
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