settle in for a bluesy, soulful Christmas song. Set down by your fire or that burning Yule
log on TV, Put your feet up and pour yourself a generous glass of your favorite libation. You are in for a treat.
Jamesetta Hawkins was born to a teen age mother and possible prostitute in Los Angeles, California on January 25,
1938. Her mother was Black and her unknown father was White giving the child a very light complexion was she described as
both a blessing and a curse.
Her childhood was very difficult.
Her mother periodically abandoned her mother and she was placed in a
series of foster homes before she
was placed with “Sarge” and “Mama” Lu James. The couple, recognizing
the girl’s natural gift at singing signed her up with the Echoes of Eden choir at St. Paul Baptist Church, in South-Central LA under the direction of James
Earle Hines. Both her choirmaster/mentor Hines and father-figure Sarge physically beat her.
1950 when Jamesetta was 12 Mama Lu died and her mother re-entered her life
taking her to the San Francisco Fillmore
District, even then an enclave
of hipsters, musicians, and viper drug
culture. Influenced by the doo-wop sound she heard on the street she formed her own girl group, the Creolettes, named for the members’ light-skinned complexions at
age 14 and soon attracted the attention of the singer, DJ, and producer Johnny Otis,
a pioneer of West Coast Rock and Roll and Rhythm and Blues. Under his
tutelage the Creolettes were re-named the Peaches
and their lead singer became Etta James.
first collaboration was an answer song to Hank Ballard’s Work With Me,
Annie. Etta was given co-writer
credit when Dance With Me Henry was recorded in early1955 and shot to the top of the Billboard Hot Rhythm & Blues
Tracks chart that February. That
led to joining Little Richard’s national
tour as the opening act.
the fast start the teenage phenome charted another R&B hit, Good Rockin’ Daddy but
struggled to get traction on follow-ups.
Her label, Modern,
dropped her in 1960. That turned out to
be a very good thing. She signed with Chicago-based Chess Records which open
up new worlds for her. At Chess subsidy
Argo records she dueted with Harvey Fuqua scoring hits with If I Can’t Have You and Spoonful,
the Willie Dixon song that became a blues
classic for Howlin’ Wolf and
Leonard Chess reimagined James
as a classic ballad singer and saloon chanteuse recording her with
lush string arrangements on her Argo LP debut, At Last! Although not a huge hit on its initial release, it has entered the musical canon as one of the greatest
albums of all time. The sultry title
song became James’s signature song. The album and its follow-up, The Second Time Around featured a
wide mix of styles—jazz standards,
blues, doo-wop, and smooth R&B.
James continued to expand her range
of styles by adding gospel overtones
on hits like Something’s Got a Hold on Me and Stop the Wedding. She released her first live album in 1963. In 1967 she recorded at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama with
gutsier R&B numbers including her hit Tell Mama.
Etta's classic album At Last!
her success James fought periodic
depressions and sank into pill-popping
and heroin addiction. She did not record and seldom performed
live for two years and when she struggled to return she was devastated by the death of Leonard Chess in 1969.
her late ‘60’s absence she bounced
checks, forged prescriptions,
and stole from her friends. She was
arrested in 1966 for kiting bad
checks, placed on probation, and
ordered to pay a $500 fine. In 1969, she spent 10 days in jail for violating probation. Her musician friends included many addicts including
Ellington “Fugi” Jordan with whom
she co-wrote I’d Rather Go Blind after visiting him in prison. That year she also
married another user, Artis Mills.
had a string of legal hustles during
the early 1970s due to her heroin
addiction. She was in and out of rehabilitation centers. Her husband accepted responsibility when they were
both arrested for heroin possession and served a 10-year prison sentence finally released in 1981. In 1973, James was arrested for possession of
heroin and the following year was sentenced to drug treatment instead of serving time in prison. While there she
became addicted to methadone and
would mix her doses with heroin. She was in the Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital for 17 months. After leaving
treatment, however, her substance abuse continued after she developed a relationship with another addict. In 1988, at the age of 50, James entered the Betty Ford Center, for treatment. But in 2010, she was back in treatment for a dependency on painkillers.
between these struggles James continued to record and perform live, but despite
scoring a few mid-level R&B hits in the early ‘70s never again matched the
success of her glory years with Chess.
She recorded her last Chess album in 1976 and moved to Warner Bros. In ’78 to record a more rock based album
that caught the attention of the Rolling
Stones who had her open some American tour dates in ’79. But after that promising flash, James did not record again for ten years as she battled
slowly began to perform live again with musicians who admired her in the 1980s including two guest appearances at Grateful
Dead concerts in as a guest on John
Mayal’s Blues Breakers 1982 reunion
show in New Jersey . In 1984 she contacted David
Wolper and asked to perform in the opening
ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympics,
at which she sang When the Saints Go Marching In.
In 1987, she did Rock & Roll Music with Chuck Berry in the documentary film Hail! Hail! Rock
‘n’ Roll. That set a pattern of
her being periodically rediscovered by
new generations of musicians and fans.
1989, she signed with Island Records
and released two albums Seven Year Itch and Stickin’
to My Guns. Once again expanding
her range she worked rap singer Def Jef
on the song Droppin’ Rhymes on Drums,
which mixed James's jazz vocals with hip-hop. In 1993 James was inducted into the Rock &
Roll Hall of Fame.
signed with Private Music Records
that year and recorded a Billie Holiday
tribute album, Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday—a tribute to a singer
whose troubled life mirrored her own. The album set a trend of incorporating
more jazz elements in her won her first Grammy Award, for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female, in 1994. In 1995, her autobiography, A Rage to Survive,
co-written with David Ritz, was
was achieving the status of a revered roots
artist. In 2001, she was inducted into
the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. In 2003, she
received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement
Award. On her 2004 release, Blue Gardenia, she returned to a
jazz style. Her final album for Private Music, Let’s Roll, released in
2005, won the Grammy Award for Best
Contemporary Blues Album. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked her
number 62 on its list of the 100
Greatest Artists of All Time. She
performed frequently at the Montreux
Jazz Festival, Monterey Jazz
Festival, San Francisco Jazz
Festival, Playboy Jazz Festival,
North Sea Jazz Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
2008, James was portrayed by Beyoncé
Knowles in the film Cadillac Records, a fictional
account of Chess Records. In April 2009,
at the age of 71, James made her final
television appearance, singing At
Last on Dancing with the Stars. In May 2009, she received the Soul/Blues Female Artist of the Year
award from the Blues Foundation, the
ninth time she won the award. She carried on touring but by 2010 had to cancel
concert dates because of her gradually
failing health, after it was revealed that she was suffering from dementia
and leukemia. In November 2011,
James released her final album, The Dreamer, which was critically
acclaimed upon its release.
died on January 20, 2012, five days before her 74th birthday, at Riverside Community Hospital in Riverside, California. Her funeral was presided over by Reverend Al Sharpton. Stevie
Wonder, Beyoncé, and Christina
Aguilera each sang a musical tribute.
She was buried at Inglewood Park
Cemetery in Los Angeles County.
Winter Holidays Festival selection, This
Time of Year (When Christmas is Near), with music and words by Cliff Owens and Jesse Hollis was included on her 1988 album Etta James Christmas