Etta James

From New World Encyclopedia

Etta James
Etta James in 1990
Etta James in 1990
Background information
Birth name Jamesetta Hawkins
Born January 25 1938(1938-01-25)
Los Angeles, California, USA
Died January 20 2012 (aged 73)
Riverside, California, USA
Genre(s) Blues
Occupation(s) Singer, Songwriter
Years active 1954 – 2012
Label(s) Chess (1960–1975)
Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday

Etta James (January 25, 1938 - January 20, 2012) was an American blues, soul, R&B, and jazz singer and songwriter, who had her biggest success in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the mid 1950s she recorded "The Wallflower," better known as "Dance with Me Henry," which was an R & B hit for her and a major pop success for Georgia Gibbs. James is best known, however, for her 1961 ballad "At Last," which has been featured in many movies and television commercials since its release, and is often performed at contemporary weddings. Other hit songs by her include "Something's Got A Hold On Me" and "Tell Mama."

A Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner, James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.


Early life and career

Jamesetta Hawkins was born in Los Angeles, California, to an unmarried 14 year old African-American mother, Dorothy Hawkins. She received her first professional vocal training at the age of five, from James Earle Hines, a choir director at St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles.

James' family moved to San Francisco in 1950, and she soon teamed up with two other girls to form a doo-wop singing group. When the girls were 14, band leader Johnny Otis auditioned them. They sang an answer to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie" called "Roll With Me Henry." Otis liked the song, and against her mother's wishes, James and the trio went to Los Angeles to record it in 1954. The trio renamed the song "The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry)" and released it in 1955. James named her vocal group The Peaches.


James' version of "The Wallflower" reached number two on the rhythm and blues charts in February 1955, but was undercut in the wider market by a rushed-out cover version by Georgia Gibbs on Mercury Records. Titled "Dance With Me Henry," Gibbs' version of the song became a number-one hit on the pop charts. The song's royalties were divided between Hank Ballard, Etta James, and Johnny Otis, and its huge success attracted the attention of the R&B world.

Soon after the success of "Dance With Me Henry," The Peaches and James parted company, but this did not halt her career. James soon went on tour with Little Richard, where she witnessed and experienced situations to which minors are not usually privy and acquired a drug habit.

James continued to record and release albums throughout much of the decade and enjoyed more success. Her follow-up, "Good Rockin' Daddy," became another hit. Other songs, such as "Tough Lover" and "W-O-M-A-N" failed to gain significant sales, however. James also toured with Otis Redding and Johnny "Guitar" Watson and has cited Watson as a significant influence on her style.

Despite her success, at age 21, James was battling with a heroin addiction. She eventually went to rehab in 1973. She also would have a history of failed romantic relationships, which added a depth of believability and pathos to her love songs.

The Chess years

In 1960, James signed a recording contract with Chess Records. The recording company released many duets with her then boyfriend, Harvey Fuqua, who was then the lead singer of the Moonglows. One of these duets, "If I Can't Have You," became a hit on the R & B charts in 1960. A solo blues song, "All I Could Do Was Cry," became an R & B hit for James.

Chess co-founder Leonard Chess saw the potential for James to go into a more pop-oriented direction, and 1961 Chess released "At Last." The song reached number two on the R & B charts and number 22 on the pop charts that year, becoming James' signature song. Other songs such as "Trust In Me" and "Something's Got a Hold On Me" also proved successful.

James' 1963 album Etta James Rocks the House, cut at Nashville's "New Era" club, also sold well. Other singles by her during the 60s sold mainly to R & B audiences. In 1967, "Tell Mama" became a Top Ten hit on the R & B charts and made James a household name once more. The follow-up, "Security" and proved that James still had staying power.

Despite the death of Leonard Chess, James stayed with the Chess label into 1975. Toward the end of the Chess years, she moved back into more rock-based songs.

Atlantic and beyond

James recorded for numerous other labels and continued to release albums, including 1978's Deep In the Night by Atlantic Records. She received accolades for her 1981 rendition of Randy Newman's "God's Song." Her 1988 album Seven Year Itch showed more of her soul side. In 1989, Etta recorded the song "Avenue D" with David A. Stewart, of Eurythmics fame. The song was featured on the soundtrack to the Robert Wise film, Rooftops.

Into the 1990s, she continued to record and perform. Her albums widely varied in styles and genres of music. Her 1992 soul album, The Right Time, was produced by Elektra Records. Jazz became the subject for many of her 1990s albums. In 1998, she released a Christmas album called An Etta James Christmas. To a younger generation, Etta is known for her version of the Muddy Waters song "I Just Wanna Make Love to You," used in television commercials for Coca-Cola. James' version was a surprise Top-Ten UK hit in 1995.

Later in life, James struggled with obesity, reaching more than 400 pounds and often needing a wheelchair. In 2003, she underwent gastric bypass surgery and her weight dropped by almost half. She continued to tour, finding enthusiastic audiences from fans of blues, R & B, and early rock and roll.


Did you know?
Etta James bridged the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll music

James is regarded as having bridged the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll music. From 1989, James received over 30 awards and recognitions from eight different organizations, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences which organizes the Grammys.

She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001. In 2003, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked her number 62 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time and number 22 on their list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.

James won a total of six Grammys, including three Grammys for her albums: Best jazz vocal performance for "Mystery Lady" in 1994, Best Contemporary Blues album for Let's Roll in 2003, and Best Traditional Blues album for Blues to the Bone in 2004. Two of her early songs have been given Grammy Hall of Fame Awards for "qualitative or historical significance": At Last, in 1999, and The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry) in 2008. In 2003, she was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. At Last has evolved into a perennial favorite that is often performed at weddings and dances, while Dance with Me Henry and Tell Mama are favorite R & B dance numbers.

Selected awards and recognitions

Grammy history

Etta James Grammy Award History
Year Category Title Genre Label Result
2008 Grammy Hall of Fame "The Wallflower" ("Roll With Me Henry") R&B Argo (1961) Inducted
2004 Best Traditional Blues Album Blues To The Bone Blues RCA Victor Winner
2003 Best Contemporary Blues Album Let's Roll Blues Private Music Winner
2002 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
1999 Grammy Hall of Fame "At Last" R&B Argo (1961) Inducted
1994 Best Jazz Vocal Performance Mystery Lady (Songs of Billie Holiday) Jazz Private Music Winner

The Blues Foundation Awards

Etta James: Blues Music Awards
Year Category Title Result
2007 Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year Winner
2006 Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year Winner
2004 Soul/Blues Album of the Year Let's Roll Winner
2004 Soul/Blues-Female Artist of the Year Winner
2003 Soul/Blues Album of the Year Burnin' Down The House Winner
2003 Soul/Blues-Female Artist of the Year Winner
2002 Soul/Blues-Female Artist of the Year Winner
2001 Blues Hall of Fame Inducted
2001 Soul/Blues-Female Artist of the Year Winner
2000 Soul/Blues Female Artist of the Year Winner
1999 Soul/Blues Album of the Year Life, Love, & The Blues Winner
1999 Soul/Blues Female Artist of the Year Winner
1996 Soul/Blues - Female Artist of the Year Winner
1995 Contemporary Blues-Female Artist of the Year Winner
1994 Female Blues Vocalist of the Year Winner
1994 Soul/Blues Female Artist of the Year Winner
1992 Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year Winner
1989 Contemporary Blues Female Artist Winner

Other awards

Etta James Award History
Year Company Category Result
2006 Billboard R&B Founders Award Winner
2003 Hollywood Chamber of Commerce Hollywood Walk of Fame Star at 7080 Hollywood Blvd.
2003 Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
1993 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inducted
1990 NAACP NAACP Image Award Winner
1989 Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award Winner


Chart figures from Billboard magazine. As Billboard did not publish an R&B chart in 1964, for this year only, R&B chart figures are from Cashbox.


Year Single U.S. R&B U.S. Album
1955 "The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry)" #1 - Good Rockin' Mama
1955 "Good Rockin' Daddy" #6 - Good Rockin' Mama
1960 "All I Could Do Was Cry" #2 #33 At Last!
1960 "If I Can't Have You" (with Harvey Fuqua) #6 #52 At Last!
1960 "My Dearest Darling" #5 #34 At Last!
1960 "Spoonful" (with Harvey Fuqua) #12 #78 At Last!
1961 "At Last" #2 #22 At Last!
1961 "Trust In Me" #4 #30 At Last!
1961 "A Sunday Kind of Love" At Last!
1961 "Fool That I Am" #14 #50 The Second Time Around
1961 "Don't Cry Baby" #6 #39 The Second Time Around
1961 "Dream" - #55 The Second Time Around
1961 "It's Too Soon to Know" - #54 The Second Time Around
1961 "Seven Day Fool" - #95 The Second Time Around
1962 "Something's Got a Hold on Me" #4 #37 Etta James Rocks the House
1962 "Stop the Wedding" #6 #34 Her Greatest Sides
1962 "Next Door to the Blues" #13 #71 The Essential Etta James
1962 "Fools Rush In" - #87
1963 "Would It Make Any Difference To You" - #64
1963 "How Do You Talk To An Angel" - #109
1963 "Payback" - #78 The Chess Box
1963 "Pushover" #7 #25 Her Greatest Sides
1963 "Two Sides (To Every Story)" - #63 The Chess Box
1963 "I Worry Bout You" - #118
1964 "Baby What You Want Me to Do" #35 #82 Etta James Rocks the House
1964 "Loving You More Every Day" #7 #65 The Essential Etta James
1965 "Do I Make Myself Clear" - #96
1966 "In The Basement - Part 1" (with Sugar Pie DeSanto) #37 #97 The Essential Etta James
1967 "I Prefer You" #42 - The Essential Etta James
1967 "Tell Mama" #10 #23 Tell Mama
1968 "Security" #11 #35 Tell Mama
1968 "You Got It" - #113
1968 "I Got You Babe" #32 #69 Tell Mama: The Complete Musical Sessions
1969 "Almost Persuaded" #32 #79 The Essential Etta James
1970 "Losers Weepers - Part 1" #26 #94 The Essential Etta James
1972 "I Found A Love" #31 #108 The Chess Box
1973 "All the Way Down" #29 #101 The Essential Etta James
1974 "Leave Your Hat On" #76 - Etta Is Betta Than Evah
1974 "Out on the Street, Again" #84 - Come a Little Closer
1976 "Jump Into Love" #92 - Etta is Betta Than Evah
1978 "Piece of My Heart" #93 - Deep In the Night

Selected Albums

Year Album US R&B Albums US Pop Albums Top Blues Albums
1961 At Last! - #68 -
1961 The Second Time Around - - -
1963 Etta James Top Ten - #117 -
1964 Etta James Rocks the House - #96 -
1968 Tell Mama #21 #82 -
1973 Etta James #41 #154 -
1974 Come a Little Closer #47 - -
1994 Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday - - - 1
1995 Time After Time - - - 2
1997 Her Best - - #13
1997 Love's Been Rough on Me - - #6
1998 12 Songs of Christmas - - #5
1998 Life, Love and the Blues - - #3
1999 The Best of Etta James: 20th Century Masters - - #3
1999 The Heart of a Woman - - #4
2000 Matriarch of the Blues - - #2
2001 Blue Gardenia - - - 3
2001 Love Songs - - #2
2002 Burnin' Down the House - - #1
2003 Let's Roll - #195 #1
2004 Blues to the Bone - - #4
2006 The Definitive Collection - - #1
2006 All the Way #10 #33 #3

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Gulla, Bob. Icons of R&B and Soul: An Encyclopedia of the Artists Who Revolutionized Rhythm. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0313340451.
  • Jackson, Buzzy. A Bad Woman Feeling Good: Blues and the Women Who Sang Them. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2005. ISBN 978-0393059366.
  • James, Etta, and Ritz David. Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story. New York, NY: Villard Books, 1995. ISBN 978-0679423287.

External links

All links retrieved March 22, 2024.


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