Rhythm-and-blues legend Etta James has lived a life of glory and excess, singing of her life experiences with passion and attitude, belting out the blues or singing a soulful romantic lament. It's won her four Grammy Awards and many hits over half a century of performing.
She was born Jamesetta Hawkins, the daughter of unmarried European and African American parents. (Her mother told James that she believed the father to be billiards master Rudolf Wanderone, a.k.a. Minnesota Fats). As a child, she sang gospel in the Baptist church and as a teen began performing as part of a vocal trio with friends.
Bandleader Johnny Otis heard James sing and was amused by her rendition of “Work With Me Annie” by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and brought her into the studio to record it. That single was released as “The Wallflower” (a.k.a. “Roll With Me Henry”), which hit No. 2 on the R&B chart. She was still a teenager.
In 1959, James moved to Chicago and began recording for Argo, an imprint of Chess Records, and began releasing singles the following year. Her 1961 debut album, “At Last!,” mingled passionate blues, jazz, soul and pop vocals, with a title song that remains her signature work.
By 1962, she had a top-40 hit with “Stop the Wedding,” but drug abuse nearly derailed her career. She battled heroin addiction until 1974 and was sentenced to drug rehabilitation at the Tarzana Rehabilitation Center. In the late-'60s, she landed at the storied Muscle Shoals Sound, in northern Alabama, where Aretha Franklin had recorded her career-defining early work. James recorded the album “Tell Mama,” which included the hits “Security” and the title track.
After several years of career struggles, she returned to the recording studio for “Seven Year Itch” in 1989. In 1993, she released “Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday,” a tribute to one of her main influences, and was the first of many jazz-leaning albums. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year. Her most recent Grammy was awarded to 2005's “Let's Roll” for best contemporary blues album.
She was portrayed by Beyonce Knowles in the 2008 film “Cadillac Records,” but James publicly objected when Knowles sang “At Last” for Barack and Michelle Obama on the night of the president's inauguration. Even though the song was written in 1941 and first recorded by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and then by Nat King Cole, James and her fans insisted it belonged to her. “Singing my song,” James snarled, by then 71, “she gonna get her ass whupped.”
James died Jan. 20, 2012, of complications from leukemia at Riverside Community Hospital. She was 73.