Though now considered an icon of R&B, Etta James was largely overlooked for much of her life and career. Born Jamesetta Hawkins and raised in Los Angeles, she suffered physical abuse from within and outside her family, and turned to singing as a refuge. Moving to San Francisco as a young teenager, she formed a group called the Creolettes and scored a minor hit with "Work With Me Henry" (which became a bigger hit when Georgia Gibbs covered it), Johnny Otis and Little Richard both took her on tour, and she was linked romantically with both B.B. King (who she believed wrote "Sweet Sixteen" about her) and Moonglows frontman turned producer Harvey Fuqua. The latter brought her to the Chess label where she did her most acclaimed work between 1960-70. Branching out from a straight R&B format, Fuqua added orchestration to her records and brought in stronger jazz and gospel elements, recognizing James as a great ballad singer. The title track of her first album for the label, At Last was only a minor hit at the time, but later became her signature song. Further landmarks included an aptly titled 1963 live album, Etta James Rocks the House, and her 1965 song "I'd Rather Go Blind," which became an oft-covered R&B standard. The latter was originally the B-side of "Tell Mama" which also became a famous tune after Janis Joplin covered it. The hits trailed off in the '70s as she got into harder funk, and despite some notable performances-- including a 1978 slot with the Rolling Stones-- she never achieved crossover success. Drugs and alcohol, along with a troubled love life, derailed her career by the mid '70s and she was largely off the radar for the following decade, spending much of 1974-75 inside a psychiatric hospital. Her comeback began with the 1989 album with the renowned Muscle Shoals studio crew, Seven Year Itch, whose title referred to her previous years without a recording contract. Now clean and healthy, she was giving powerful shows and was newly embraced as a rediscovered roots artist. She remained visible for the next two decades, with a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inauguration in 1993. Her Chess material was reissued and rediscovered, and she recorded a wide range of new material including a Billie Holiday tribute album in 1994 and a Christmas album in 1998. The 2008 film Cadillac Records, a fictionalized Chess story in which James was portrayed by Beyonce Knowles, enhanced James' profile and made "Al Last"a hit again; however James bristled when the invitation to perform the song at Barack Obama's inauguration went to Knowles and not her. Her final album The Dreamer came out in November 2011 and included a surprise cover of Guns 'n;' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle."By them she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and leukemia, and she died two months after the album;'s release, on the eve of her 74th birthday.
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Was a gospel music prodigy by the age of five
Family moved to San Francisco, CA
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
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
Moved to Chicago and began recording for Argo, an imprint of Chess Records
After The Peaches disbanded, signed a contract with Chess Records as a solo artist
Released first major solo hit, "All I Could Do Is Cry"
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
Recorded the Gospel-inspired "Something's Got a Hold on Me"
Released the bluesy-pop single "Baby What You Want Me to Do"
Career slowed down due to battling drug addiction; released minor hits in the 1970s, including "I Found Love"
Feature film debut, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"; film starred Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees
Opened tour dates in the U.S. for The Rolling Stones and also played at the Montreal Jazz Festival
Played a blues singer in the drama feature "Tap"
Made her comeback with the album <i>Seven Year Itch</i>, released by Island Records
Released the tribute album dedicated to one of her musical heroes <i>Mystery Lady: The Songs of Billie Holiday</i>
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Won her first Grammy Award, for Best Jazz Vocal Performance for "Mystery Lady."
Co-authored her memoir <i>Rage to Survive</i> with David Ritz
Received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
Honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Portrayed by Beyoncé Knowles in the film "Cadillac Records"