Etta James was a pioneer. Through a career that spanned more than six decades, James' raw, unharnessed voice crossed genres, with Fifties hits such as "The Wallflower" and "Good Rockin' Daddy" cementing her role in the genesis of rock and roll alongside Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and Little Richard, and her soulful pop and blues explorations of the Sixties ranking with the works of Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday. She continued to make her mark through 2011, with a string of award-winning, critically acclaimed releases that showcased her unique style.
James was born Jamesette Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938. Although brought up in the church singing in the gospel choir, she was drawn to rhythm and blues, and rock and roll, and by her mid-teens had formed a vocal trio named the Creolettes 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 arranged for the group to record “Roll With Me Henry” (retitled as “The Wallflower”) for Modern Records. Released with the group renamed the Peaches, "The Wallflower" 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.
James' solo career really started to take shape in 1960, when Leonard Chess signed her to record for his namesake record label, and Chess subsidiaries Argo and Checker. Her talent was 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 "At Last," “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 the latter half of the decade, James recorded with producer Rick Hall at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where she adopted a grittier, Southern-soul edge that resulted in "Tell Mama" and "I'd Rather Go Blind," both tracks that remain among the most incendiary vocal performances of the era. All told, James launched 30 singles onto the R&B singles chart and placed a respectable nine of them in the pop Top 40 as well. After an ongoing struggle with heroin addiction and a series of abusive relationships, James re-signed with Chess in 1973. Five years later, she opened a number of concerts for longtime fans the Rolling Stones, and recorded Deep in the Night with producer Jerry Wexler, who called James “the greatest of all modern blues singers... the undisputed Earth Mother.”
In 1984, James sang “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the opening of the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and through the late Eighties and Nineties remained active on the touring and recording fronts, cutting the Grammy-nominated albums Seven Year Itch in 1988 and Stickin’ to My Guns in 1990, and reuniting with Jerry Wexler to record 1992’s The Right Time with the simpatico Southern-soul musicians at Muscle Shoals Recording Studios. In 1993, James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a year later she recorded Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday for the Private Music label. The tribute album earned James a Grammy Award, and she recorded more than half a dozen albums for Private through 2003, including Love's Been Rough on Me, Matriarch of the Blues and Let's Roll. Her last album, The Dreamer, appeared in November 2011.
"Jerry Wexler called me one day on the phone and says: 'Etta, this is Jerry, Jerry Wexler, calling from New York,'" recalled James at the 1993 Hall of Fame Inductions. "He says, 'Hey Etta, you know what your problem is? You're neither fish nor fowl.' So, we know now what am I, right? I'm rock and roll."