“When I look out at the people and they look at me and they’re smiling, then I know that I’m loved. That is the time when I have no worries, no problems,” genuine words spoken by legendary award winning singer and musical genre pioneer, Etta James. She is one of the most celebrated singers in history and is credited with having bridged the divide between rhythm & blues, soul, jazz, country, and rock-n-roll music. This iconic singer-songwriter, best known for the hit “At Last,” has earned numerous awards and accolades, including 3 Grammys, 17 Blues Music Awards, and a Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame inductee. Her songs famously incorporated a variety of musical styles, including Blues, R&B, Soul, Rock-N-Roll, Jazz and Gospel throughout a career that lasted six decades.
Born “Jamesetta Hawkins” on January 25, 1938 in Los Angeles, California. She showed a great interest in music and singing. At the age of 5, she was known as a gospel prodigy singing on the church choir and on the radio. By the time she was 12, she was singing professionally with the Creolettes, a R&B band which was later renamed Peaches.
Discovered by bandleader Johnny Otis, in 1954 Etta recorded her first song “Wallflower” which initially was titled “Roll with Me Henry,” however it was changed due its sexually suggestive undertone. She later launched her solo career after signing with Modern Records. She recorded a series of hits throughout the late 1950s, including the 1955 hit “Good Rockin’ Daddy”.
In 1960, Etta signed with Chess Records, where she honed her God-given gift and flourished into an extraordinary vocalist. She became its first major female star, with such songs as “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “Trust in Me,” “At Last,” and “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.” In 1967 she hit the charts again with the soul song “Tell Mama.” In 1976, she left Chess Records and began recording for other labels and touring. She was the opening act for the Rolling Stones in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Etta faced many personal battles relating to drug abuse and addiction which contributed to career setbacks. Her addiction to heroin, which began in the 1960s, eventually turned into a cocaine addiction which lasted through the 70s. After a seven-year silence, she made a major comeback in the 1980s in which she started recording and touring steadily. In 1988, she recorded the album Seven Year Itch; she followed that with Stickin’ to My Guns (1990), 12 Songs of Christmas (1998), Let’s Roll (2003), and her last, The Dreamer (2011). The name of her 2001 album, Matriarch of the Blues, is reflective of her massive influence on the soul and blues genres.
She was portrayed by pop star Beyoncé Knowles in the 2008 film “Cadillac Records,” about Chess Records. In 2009, Beyoncé was invited to sing Etta’s famous hit song “At Last,” during Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration. Etta publicly criticized her, but later offered an apology, suggesting that she was upset for not being invited to sing the song herself. She added that she would have sung the song better.
Etta James earned numerous awards and accolades in her career, including 3 Grammys, 17 Blues Music Awards, NAACP Image Award, and Billboard R&B Founders Award. She has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, and the Grammy Hall of Fame. She published her autobiography “Rage To Survive,” in 1995 which proved to be as blistering as her singing.
On January 20, 2012, Etta James died at the age of 73 due to complications from leukemia in Riverside, California, only 5 days away from her 74th birthday. Her funeral was held in Gardena, California, presided over by Reverend Al Sharpton and attended by many celebrities. The inscription on her gravestone reads: “Your legacy is and will be forever an inspiration.”
“The two things you can’t fake, good food and good music.”
“My mother always told me, even if a song has been done a thousand times, you can still bring something of your own to it. I’d like to think I did that.”
“When I’m singing the blues, I’m singing life.”
“The only time that I am really truly happy – when I feel at my best – is when I am on the stage.”
“When I perform, what happens is I’m somewhere else. I go back in time and get in touch with who I really am.”
“I wanna show that gospel, country, blues, rhythm and blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll are all just really one thing.”
“When I look out at the people and they look at me and they’re smiling, then I know that I’m loved. That is the time when I have no worries, no problems.”
Recreate Model: Tyamica Mabry
Recreate Photographer: Jasmine Mallory
Makeup Artist: Ollie Tyson