Soul, rhythm & blues, rock 'n' roll, jazz, gospel, pop. Jamesetta Hawkins, better known as Etta James, could do it all. Over her 50-plus year career, James has amassed a staggering back catalog, while taking home four Grammy Awards, 17 Blues Music Awards, and scoring the prestigious Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.
Etta James was born on January 25, 1938 in Los Angles to a single, 14 year-old mother. She moved to San Francisco in 1950 and quickly formed a doo-wop group, which would become known as the Peaches. The group released the single, "The Wallflower (Dance With Me, Henry)," which led to James being discovered by influential blues figure Johnny Otis.
James re-recorded "The Wallflower," which hit #1 on the R&B Charts in 1955. From there, she released her first album, the iconic At Last! (1961) on Argo Records. Though it was the album's third single, the title track became one of James' signature songs, showing off her powerful, emotive vocals. Her first single from the album, "All I Could Do Was Cry," hit #2 on the R&B Charts. Even though it is only 28 minutes long, it is widely seen as one of the great albums of the '60s. After the release of At Last!, James proved to be a very prolific singer, releasing 27 studio albums, three live albums, and 58 singles. James continues to release music into her 70s, crafting her 27th albums, All the Way in 2006.
Though Etta James enjoyed a successful signing career, she struggled with personal demons for most of her adult life. Her most notable issues came with heroin, as she faced myriad legal and health problems due to her abuse of the drug. It came to a head in the early '70s, when James and her husband Artis Mills were arrested for heroin possession. Mills served a 10-year prison sentence, and even though James avoided jail time, she was sentenced to spend 17 months at the Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital to treat her addiction. While it seemed like she had cleaned up at the end of the term, she continued using until 1988, when she finally checked into the famous Betty Ford Center and cleaned up her life. She is still married to Mills, and she has been drug-free ever since.
One of James' greatest strengths was her versatility, as she touched on many different genres during her career. From doo-wop to pop to R&B and beyond, James is surely one of the most interesting, criminally underrated singers of latter half of the 20th century.