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Etta James

Etta James

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Also Known As: Jamesetta Hawkins Died: January 20, 2012
Born: January 25, 1938 Cause of Death: Leukemia
Birth Place: Los Angeles, California, USA Profession:

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

With a music career that spanned more than 50 years, Etta James endured many obstacles throughout her life, from growing up in a single parent household to numerous run-ins with the law, as well as a decades-long battle with drug addiction. Yet the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was always remembered for her 1961 song "At Last." The smoldering ballad put James on the map, not only as a torch singer capable of crossing over musical styles â¿¿ whether it was rhythm & blues, pop, Gospel, or jazz â¿¿ but it also turned her into an artist whose influence in the music industry transcended any genre. Often credited for bridging the gap between R&B and rock and roll, Jamesâ¿¿ sheer talent, remarkable will to survive, and her definitive song were all testaments to her lasting legacy as one of her eraâ¿¿s most revered vocalists.Born Jamesetta Hawkins on Jan. 25, 1938 in Los Angeles, the future star was a gospel music prodigy by the time she was five. Professor James Earle Hines mentored the young singer after she joined the local St. Paul Baptist Church choir. Raised by her African-American mother, James never met her father, although her mother allegedly claimed he was Caucasian pool player Rudolf "Minnesota...

With a music career that spanned more than 50 years, Etta James endured many obstacles throughout her life, from growing up in a single parent household to numerous run-ins with the law, as well as a decades-long battle with drug addiction. Yet the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was always remembered for her 1961 song "At Last." The smoldering ballad put James on the map, not only as a torch singer capable of crossing over musical styles â¿¿ whether it was rhythm & blues, pop, Gospel, or jazz â¿¿ but it also turned her into an artist whose influence in the music industry transcended any genre. Often credited for bridging the gap between R&B and rock and roll, Jamesâ¿¿ sheer talent, remarkable will to survive, and her definitive song were all testaments to her lasting legacy as one of her eraâ¿¿s most revered vocalists.

Born Jamesetta Hawkins on Jan. 25, 1938 in Los Angeles, the future star was a gospel music prodigy by the time she was five. Professor James Earle Hines mentored the young singer after she joined the local St. Paul Baptist Church choir. Raised by her African-American mother, James never met her father, although her mother allegedly claimed he was Caucasian pool player Rudolf "Minnesota Fats" Wanderone. After her family moved to San Francisco, CA in 1950, James formed a doo-wop singing group with two female friends and auditioned for famed bandleader Johnny Otis. Against her motherâ¿¿s wishes, James and her group mates joined Otis on a trip to Los Angeles in 1954 to record the track "The Wallflower (Dance With Me, Henry)" under the Modern Records label. James named the group The Peaches â¿¿ which was inspired by her nickname â¿¿ and they released their debut single the following year.

"The Wallflower" topped the Billboard R&B charts in 1955, but was later eclipsed by a mainstream version of the track recorded by white singer Georgia Gibbs. The Peaches parted ways soon after "The Wallflower" hit big, but James continued to record and release music as a solo artist. She signed a contract with Chess Records in 1960 and began recording music for its subsidiary labels Argo Records and Cadet. Jamesâ¿¿ breakthrough came that year when she recorded a series of duets with R&B singer Harvey Fuqua, who founded the 1950s hit-making group, The Moonglows, titled "If I Canâ¿¿t Have You" and "Spoonful." Her first major solo hit, "All I Could Do Is Cry," peaked at No. 2 on the R&B charts in 1960, immediately followed by the Top 5 single "My Dearest Darling," also released that year. James released her debut album At Last! (1961), a collection of her previously released tracks as well as cover versions of standards such as "Stormy Weather" (1933) and "A Sunday Kind of Love" (1946). But it was the standout title track "At Last," a romantic ballad with sweeping orchestration, that showcased the singerâ¿¿s potential for a pop music crossover. Originally written in 1941 for the musical film "Orchestra Wives" (1942), Jamesâ¿¿ version of "At Last" received heavy airplay on pop radio, landed at No. 2 on the R&B charts and reached No. 47 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Performed at weddings and often played during romantic film scenes, "At Last" became Jamesâ¿¿ signature track and the most covered song of her entire career. Various artists from Christina Aguilera to Celine Dion recorded or performed a version of "At Last." R&B superstar Beyonce Knowles portrayed James in the 2008 feature film "Cadillac Records" and recorded her version of the song for its accompanying soundtrack. James praised Knowlesâ¿¿ performance and even attended the filmâ¿¿s red carpet premiere in Hollywood. She changed her tune, however, after Knowles serenaded First Couple Barack and Michelle Obama with "At Last" at the newly elected presidentâ¿¿s 2009 inaugural gala. A few days after the highly publicized event, James publicly criticized Knowles and President Obama during a concert held in Seattle, WA. Entertainment-based Web site TMZ obtained a recording of James as she expressed her dislike of the singer ("She has no business up there, singing my song that Iâ¿¿ve been singing forever") as well as the newly elected President ("He ainâ¿¿t my President"). James later told The New York Daily News that she really did not mean anything by her rant and acknowledged her displeasure for the presidential snub.

James spent the majority of her career recording music and churning out more hits, from the Gospel-inspired "Somethingâ¿¿s Got a Hold on Me" (1962) to the bluesy-pop single "Baby What You Want Me to Do" (1964). The singer battled a heroin addiction around the mid-1960s and spent a considerable amount of time at a Los Angeles psychiatric hospital. Her husband Artis Mills, whom she married in 1969, served a 10-year prison sentence after the couple was arrested for heroin possession in 1972. She revealed candid details about her addiction, including multiple arrests for drug possession, forgery, and passing bad checks in the 1995 autobiography, Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story. Her addiction lasted almost a decade, yet by the time she recovered, Jamesâ¿¿ career had also slowed down. She released minor hits in the 1970s, including "I Found Love" (1972). James made her feature film debut in 1978 with an appearance in the unfortunate musical film, "Sgt. Pepperâ¿¿s Lonely Hearts Club Band," starring Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees, and featuring songs by The Beatles. Her only other film role was playing a blues singer in the drama "Taps" (1989). She continued recording throughout the 1980s and 1990s, releasing albums filled with pop and R&B standards, as well as a tribute album dedicated to one of her musical heroes, Mystery Lady: The Songs of Billie Holiday in 1993. That same year, James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with The Doors and Sly & The Family Stone. She won her first Grammy Award in 1994, for Best Jazz Vocal Performance for "Mystery Lady."

The new millennium ushered a new era in Jamesâ¿¿ career. As one of musicâ¿¿s most revered artists, she was continually showered with industry accolades, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. The following year, Rolling Stone magazine ranked James No. 62 on the list of "100 Greatest Artists of All Time." The singer consistently toured, performing at various jazz concerts and music festivals. Jamesâ¿¿ health began deteriorating after she was diagnosed with Alzheimerâ¿¿s disease in 2009. Her son Donto James claimed the singerâ¿¿s notorious commentary about Beyonce Knowles and President Obama around this time was the result of drug-induced dementia. Jamesâ¿¿ failing health reached national attention when it was revealed in January 2011 that she was undergoing treatment for leukemia. The news about her grave condition surfaced following reports of a civil case involving her husband Mills and his attempt to seek control of more than $1 million of Jamesâ¿¿ money from their son Donto. A Riverside County Superior Court judge later ordered the release of $60,000 from Jamesâ¿¿ savings account towards her care. On Jan. 20, 2010, James succumbed to her disease at age 73, leaving behind an indelible musical legacy.

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Milestones close milestones

1943:
Was a gospel music prodigy by the age of five
1950:
Family moved to San Francisco, CA
1954:
Formed a doo-wop singing group with two female friends called The Peaches and auditioned for famed bandleader Johnny Otis; joined Otis on a trip to Los Angeles to record the track "The Wallflower (Dance With Me, Henry)" under the Modern Records label
1955:
Released debut single by The Peaches, "The Wallflower"; song topped the Billboard R&B charts, but was later eclipsed by a mainstream version of the track recorded by white singer Georgia Gibbs
1959:
Moved to Chicago and began recording for Argo, an imprint of Chess Records
1960:
After The Peaches disbanded, signed a contract with Chess Records as a solo artist
1960:
Released first major solo hit, "All I Could Do Is Cry"
1961:
Released debut album <i>At Last!</i>, a collection of her previously released tracks as well as cover versions of standards; album featured signature track "At Last," which landed at No. 2 on the R&B charts and reached No. 47 on the <i>Billboard</i> Hot 100
1962:
Recorded the Gospel-inspired "Something¿s Got a Hold on Me"
1964:
Released the bluesy-pop single "Baby What You Want Me to Do"
1972:
Career slowed down due to battling drug addiction; released minor hits in the 1970s, including "I Found Love"
1978:
Feature film debut, "Sgt. Pepper¿s Lonely Hearts Club Band"; film starred Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees
1978:
Opened tour dates in the U.S. for The Rolling Stones and also played at the Montreal Jazz Festival
1989:
Made her comeback with the album <i>Seven Year Itch</i>, released by Island Records
1989:
Played a blues singer in the drama feature "Tap"
1993:
Released the tribute album dedicated to one of her musical heroes <i>Mystery Lady: The Songs of Billie Holiday</i>
1993:
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
1994:
Won her first Grammy Award, for Best Jazz Vocal Performance for "Mystery Lady."
1995:
Co-authored her memoir <i>Rage to Survive</i> with David Ritz
2003:
Received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
2003:
Honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
2008:
Portrayed by Beyoncé Knowles in the film "Cadillac Records"
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