Etta James

  • Biography:

    Blues, soul, jazz, R&B, and rock vocalist Etta James forged a five-decade career with an alternately powerful and poignant voice gracing over a dozen hit singles and earning her four Grammys and a prominent place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

    Etta James was still in her early teens and singing with a vocal trio called the Peaches when legendary R&B bandleader Johnny Otis discovered her. At Otis' L.A. home, he and Etta co-wrote her first hit, "Roll With Me, Henry," an answer to Hank Ballard and the Midnighters' off-color "Work With Me, Annie." Under the title "The Wallflower," "Henry" became a Number Two R&B hit in 1955. That year Georgia Gibbs had a Number One Pop hit with a mild cover of the tune, called "Dance With Me, Henry." Later, James' version was retitled "Dance With Me, Henry."

    Through the mid-1950s James became a mainstay of Otis' revue and scored another R&B hit with "Good Rockin' Daddy" (Number 12, 1955). In 1960 she moved from Modern to Chess Records' Argo subsidiary, and the R&B hits began coming again: "All I Could Do Was Cry" (Number Two R&B), "My Dearest Darling" (Number Five R&B), and a duet as Etta and Harvey (with Harvey Fuqua of Harvey and the Moonglows) entitled "If I Can't Have You" (Number 52 pop, Number Six R&B). She also sang background vocals on Chuck Berry's "Almost Grown" and "Back in the U.S.A."

    James continued making R&B hits through the early 1960s. In 1961 she had more Top Ten R&B hits with "At Last" (Number Two R&B) and "Trust in Me" (Number Four R&B), and in 1962 with "Something's Got a Hold on Me" (Number Four R&B) and "Stop the Wedding" (Number Six R&B). In 1963 she hit the pop chart with "Pushover" (Number 25 pop, Number Seven R&B), as well as "Pay Back" (Number 78), "Two Sides to Every Story" (Number 63), and "Would It Make Any Difference to You" (Number 64); 1964 brought "Baby, What You Want Me to Do?" (Number 82) and "Loving You More Every Day" (Number 65).

    In the 1960s she developed a heroin addiction that lasted through 1974 and kept her much of the time in L.A.'s Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital. Still, she hit big with "Tell Mama" (Number 23 pop, Number Ten R&B, 1967), "Losers Weepers" (Number 26 R&B, 1970), and "I've Found a Love" (Number 31 R&B, 1972). Though she has not had any major hit records since ending her heroin addiction, James has remained a popular concert performer. She played the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1977 and opened some dates for the Rolling Stones' 1978 U.S. tour.

    Seven Year Itch was produced by keyboardist Barry Beckett, house keyboardist at Alabama's legendary Muscle Shoals studio, where James had recorded such 1960s R&B hits as "I'd Rather Go Blind." She returned to Muscle Shoals to record The Right Time, which reunited her with Jerry Wexler (the longtime Aretha Franklin producer, who'd worked on James' Deep in the Night album) and included a duet with Steve Winwood; shortly after the album's release, James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She won her first Grammy for 1994's Mystery Lady: The Songs of Billie Holiday. In 1995 she published her autobiography (co-written with David Ritz), Rage to Survive.

    In 2001 she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and in 2003 she received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. That year, having long struggled with problems associated with obesity, she underwent gastric bypass surgery and lost more than 200 pounds. James has taken two more Grammys, one for 2003's Let's Roll and another for 2004's Blues to the Bone. In 2006 she released All the Way on RCA Records and won Billboard's R&B Founders award. James continues to tour.