Jerry Wexler, Atlantic Records' legendary producer, describes Etta James as "the greatest of all modern blues singers...the undisputed Earth Mother." Her raw, unharnessed vocals and hot-blooded eroticism has made disciples of singers ranging from Janis Joplin to Bonnie Raitt. James' pioneering 1950s hits - "The Wallflower" and "Good Rockin' Daddy" - assure her place in the early history of rock and roll alongside Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Ray Charles. In the Sixties, as a soulful singer of pop and blues diva compared with the likes of Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, James truly found her musical direction and made a lasting mark.
James was born Jamesette Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938. Though brought up in the church, she was drawn to rhythm & blues and rock and roll, and by her midteens had formed a vocal trio that worked up an answer song to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me Annie" entitled "Roll With Me Henry." The trio caught the attention of bandleader Johnny Otis, who recorded "Roll With Me Henry," which was retitled "The Wallflower" and topped the R&B chart for four weeks in 1955. James toured the R&B circuit with Otis and other artists and recorded for Modern Records until 1958.
It was at the Chicago-based Chess label (where she recorded for Chess and its Argo and Cadet subsidiaries) that she molded her identity as a singer of both modern blues and pop-R&B ballads. She was signed by Leonard Chess in 1960 and had her talent nurtured by producer Ralph Bass and mentor Harvey Fuqua (of the Moonglows). James crossed over to the pop market as an interpreter of soulful, jazz-tinged ballads such as "All I Could Do Was Cry," "My Dearest Darling," "Trust in Me" and "Don't Cry, Baby," which she sang without sacrificing her bluesy and churchy vocal mannerisms. In 1968, she adapted a grittier Southern-soul edge, cutting "Tell Mama" and "I'd Rather Go Blind," which remain among the most incendiary vocal performances of the era. All totaled, James launched thirty singles onto the R&B singles chart and placed a respectable nine of them in the pop Top Forty as well.
For much of her career James battled heroin addiction, which has added to her aura as a survivor. A cleaned-up James made a successful comeback in the Seventies, re-signing with Chess in 1973 and opening for the Rolling Stones in 1978. In 1984, she sang "When the Saints Go Marching In" at the opening of the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. James has subsequently remained active on the touring and recording fronts, cutting the Grammy-nominated albums Seven Year Itch and Stickin' to My Guns and reuniting with Jerry Wexler to record 1993's The Right Time with the simpatico Southern-soul musicians at Muscle Shoals Recording Studios.
January 25, 1938
Etta James was born.
Etta James hits #1 on the R&B chart with "The Wallflower" and #6 on the R&B chart with "Good Rockin Daddy". Both singles are released on the Modern label.
Etta James makes her Chess Records debut.
June 13, 1960
Etta James hits #2 on the R&B chart and #33 on the pop chart with the Modern single "All I Could Do Was Cry."
December 5, 1960
Etta James hits #34 with the Modern single "My Dearest Darling."
December 12, 1960
Etta James hits #36 with "Don't Go To Strangers."
April 17, 1961
Etta James hits #30 with "Trust In Me".
Etta James hits #2 on the R&B chart with "At Last", #4 on the R&B chart and #30 (4/17) on the pop chart with "Trust In Me" and #6 on the R&B chart and #39 (9/04) on the pop chart with "Don't Cry, Baby".
September 4, 1961
Etta James hits #39 with "Don't Cry Baby".
April 14, 1962
Etta James hits #4 on the R&B chart and #39 on the pop chart with "Something's Got A Hold On Me".
September 15, 1962
Etta James hits #34 with "Stop the Wedding".
September 1, 1974
Lloyd Price stages a music festival in Zaire, Africa, with boxing promoter Don King. The event attracts 120,000 people and offers James Brown, B.B. King, Etta James, Bill Withers, the Spinners and others.
January 12, 1993
Etta James is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
January 19, 1994
Johnny Otis is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the ninth annual induction dinner. Etta James is his presenter.