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Etta James

Etta James, who died aged 73 on 20 January 2012, was one of the greatest and most influential soul and R&B vocalists of all time. A regular in the Ace catalogue since our earliest days, Etta is currently represented with six collections of her classic recordings for the Modern and Chess labels.

She was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles on 25 January 1938. Her mother Dorothy was just 14 at the time. Dorothy’s older sister Cozetta and her husband James acted as Jamesetta’s legal guardians until she was six months old, when Dorothy handed her over to foster parents.

Lula and Jesse Rogers had no children of their own and raised Jamesetta well. They sent her for tap dancing, ballet and drama classes and every year to summer camp. On Sundays she accompanied Lula Rogers to St Paul Baptist Church where the renowned Professor James Earle Hines directed the Echoes Of Eden choir. Jamesetta took voice tuition from Professor Hines, piano lessons from his wife and became a local child celebrity, performing on weekly radio broadcasts.

When Lula Rogers died in 1950, Jamesetta was taken in by Dorothy’s older brother and his wife. The upheaval brought out a rebellious streak in her. She bounced from school to school and began hanging around with street gangs. She became friendly with the Balinton family and joined the Lucky Twenties gang with one of the girls, Umpeylia. After one particularly violent rumble, Jamesetta was sent to a juvenile home for a month.

In 1953 she began singing with her friends Abye and Jean Mitchell, naming themselves the Creolettes. They worked up an act performing jazz songs and numbers by their favourite groups the Spaniels and the Chords. While singing at a record hop they got to meet the Midnighters, in town to promote their hit record ‘Work With Me, Annie’. After the show the girls sat down and wrote ‘Roll With Me, Henry’ in response to the Midnighters’ song.

Abye, the eldest of the Creolettes, inveigled her way backstage at a Johnny Otis show and persuaded him to audition the group. Otis liked their sound and offered them the chance to make some records.

On Thanksgiving Eve 1954 the girls entered the studio of the Bihari brothers’ Modern Records, one of LA’s leading independent labels, to cut ‘Roll With Me, Henry’, with Richard Berry helping out as the voice of Henry. Within days Otis was playing a dub of the song on his radio show. As a gimmick he invited listeners to phone in and suggest a name for the group, but he’d already decided to rechristen them the Peaches and to switch around Jamesetta’s name to Etta James, giving her lead billing.

Lest it prove too suggestive for airplay, the song was re-titled ‘The Wallflower’ upon its release in January 1955. The record entered the R&B charts in February, rising to #1, where it remained for a month. The Peaches were unhappy with Etta getting the main attention, but not as miffed as she was when Georgia Gibbs took her sanitised cover version of the song to #1 on the pop charts, or when a legal dispute delayed royalty payments.

Etta and the Peaches took to the road as featured vocalists with the Johnny Otis Show until Dorothy Hawkins reappeared to help extricate her daughter from her contract. By this time Otis had also discovered and recorded Etta’s friend Umpeylia Balinton, dubbing her Little Miss Sugar Pie. The Peaches did not sing on Etta’s next hit ‘Good Rockin’ Daddy’ or any of her other records, but they continued to tour with her, sometimes with Sugar Pie’s sister Francesca filling in.

Etta spent the next few years working the chitlin’ circuit. More records for Modern followed – including some cut at Cosimo Matassa’s studio inNew Orleans– but none were hits. She made many friends on the road, including Sam Cooke, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Little Willie John, Little Richard, Ruth Brown and Jackie Wilson.

In 1957 Etta met John Lewis, who became her manager. She worked on a bill with the Moonglows in Washington, DC and fell for their leader Harvey Fuqua. She and Fuqua recorded a single together, which Modern issued as by Betty & Dupree. With her career in the doldrums, at the suggestion of one of the Moonglows, Etta headed to Chicago, the home of Chess Records.

Her timing was good. Co-founder Leonard Chess was on the lookout for new female singers and signed her up, buying out her Modern contract. Her first job at the company was to sing background on Chuck Berry’s ‘Almost Grown’ and ‘Back In The USA’. While awaiting her own first session, Etta and the Moonglows took off on a tour of the South, where they all got busted for possessing drugs.

In January 1960 Etta recorded ‘All I Could Do Was Cry’, co-written by Motown’s Berry Gordy. The record was released on Chess’ jazz subsidiary Argo in March. It entered the Billboard Hot 100 two months later, peaking at #33 and at #2 on their R&B chart. By the end of 1960 Etta had amassed four hits, including two more duets with Harvey Fuqua.

Now 22, Etta began recording songs from a bygone era in an attempt to appear more sophisticated. Her version of the Glenn Miller evergreen ‘At Last’, with a lush orchestral arrangement by Riley Hampton, and her album of the same title were big sellers in 1961, setting the scene for ‘Trust In Me’, ‘Dream’, ‘It’s Too Soon To Know’ and many others.

Etta’s new success enabled her to buy a house in Los Angeles, but her mother got involved and messed up the deal. The place was about to be repossessed when Leonard Chess intervened and purchased the deeds, allowing Etta to remain there.

Etta was in New Orleanswhen she first tried heroin, thinking it was cocaine, and overdosed. In Indianapolis she was jailed for possession until John Lewis stumped up a bribe to get her out. On tour with her band, she witnessed her bass player and saxophonist both die from overdoses.

Leonard Chess came to the rescue again and arranged for Etta to be admitted to a convalescent home to clean up, but while there she was diagnosed with tetanus, from which she was lucky to survive. Months later, drug-free, she headed for New York, where she met up with Lewis; her downward spiral began again.

Etta and her friend Esther Phillips, a fellow addict, took to cashing bad cheques, for which Etta was caught and served time in New York’s Rikers Island prison. The dud cheque scam also landed her a four-month stretch in Cook County, a tough jail in Chicago. Other spells in prison and rehab followed.

But drugs did not impair Etta’s art. By the end of 1964 over 20 of her singles had reached the Billboard or Cash Box R&B charts, most of them also entering the Hot 100, including ‘Don’t Cry, Baby’, ‘Something’s Got A Hold On Me’, ‘Stop The Wedding’ and ‘Pushover’, all of which went Top 40. Her album “Etta James Rocks The House”, recorded live with her band the Kinfolks in Nashville in 1963, also sold well.

Etta yearned for a child. She attempted buy a baby from Mexico, but ended up getting ripped off. When the wife of Kinfolks saxophonist Garnel Cooper gave birth to twins, Etta offered to adopt one of them. She took care of the boy, but after six months his mother reclaimed him.

Despite all her troubles, Etta continued to make great records, including the duets ‘Do I Make Myself Clear’ and ‘In The Basement’ with her old friend Sugar Pie DeSanto (Umpeylia Balinton) and an excellent album, “Call My Name”, produced by Monk Higgins.

In 1967 Chess flew a pregnant Etta to Muscle Shoals to record at FAME Studios. The sessions yielded one of her biggest hits, ‘Tell Mama’; one of her greatest recordings, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’; and the “Tell Mama” album, her best-seller. She returned to FAME in 1968, son Donto in her arms. It was the last time she would ever see Leonard Chess.

Later that year bounty hunters caught up with Etta and escorted her to Anchorage, Alaska to face charges dating back two years. After 10 days in jail she was bailed to await trial, which took three months, during which time she landed a regular club gig, where she met and fell in love with Artis Mills. The case against her was eventually dropped, with the proviso that she not return to Anchorage for five years. She and Mills married and headed back to Los Angeles.

When in 1969 Leonard Chess died, Etta was concerned she might lose her house, but a few days later she took delivery of an envelope he had left for her. It contained the deeds. Even in death Chess treated her well.  

By 1972 Artis Mills had also succumbed to addiction. Etta and he resorted to pulling scams, cashing stolen cheques and worse to raise the money for drugs. They were on the run in Texas when narcotics agents arrested them. Exhausted by their Bonnie and Clyde lifestyle, for the sake of his wife Mills took the rap. He was jailed for 10 years and Etta was released on the condition that she enrol in a methadone programme.

Chess gave Etta a desk job at their New York office and arranged for her to get treatment, but before long she was hooked on both methadone and heroin. Again she was arrested and forced to return to Los Angeles to face outstanding charges. While her lawyer negotiated a deal with the courts, Etta went to work on the “Etta James” album with producer Gabriel Mekler. The record revealed a more rock-styled Etta and reached the pop and soul charts.

When her case came up, the judge gave her a choice: serve time in the notorious Corona Institute women’s prison or be admitted for therapy at the Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital. She chose Tarzana. The programme was tough, but worked, and Etta became a prize patient. She was allowed out for more recording sessions with Mekler and in 1974 released the album “Come A Little Closer”. Etta left Tarzana after 17 months and set up home with one of her counsellors. Her second son Sametto was born in 1976, not long after the release of “Etta Is Betta Than Evvah!”, her final Chess album.

In 1976 Etta and her band flew to Switzerland to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Her first post-Chess album was “Deep In The Night”, produced by Jerry Wexler, who also set it up for her to open for the Rolling Stones on their US tour of 1978. Her next LP “Changes” was recorded in New Orleans with producer Allen Toussaint.

Etta had just finished the sound check for a gig in Dallas in 1981 when she encountered her husband Artis, who was out of jail on parole. She returned to visit him after his discharge to a halfway house and they reunited. The couple would remain together until Etta’s death.

Etta’s career received a boost in 1984 when she was asked to perform at the opening ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympics. Although she never considered herself a blues singer, a resurgence of interest in the music kept her in live work, but problems with substance abuse continued to plague her. In 1988 she booked herself into the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs to overcome a codeine dependency.

In 1988 Chris Blackwell signed Etta to his Island label, for which she recorded two albums produced by Barry Beckett. While in Nashville for the sessions she made a point of visiting the man she had been brought up to believe was her father, fabled pool player Minnesota Fats.

Etta received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in 1989. In 1992 she reunited with Jerry Wexler for the album “The Right Time”. Wexler also successfully campaigned for her induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame the following year. Etta also attended the 1994 ceremony to present an award to Johnny Otis, the man who had discovered her. Her autobiography Rage To Survive, co-written with David Ritz, was published the following year.

After several previous nominations, Etta won the Best Jazz Vocal Performance Grammy for 1994’s “Mystery Lady”, her album of songs associated with Billie Holiday. Seven further albums for Private Music followed, culminating in 2003’s “Let’s Roll”, which won the Best Contemporary Blues Grammy.

Etta had suffered from weight problems ever since childhood. A side effect of her drug use was that it had kept her slim. Without drugs she became increasingly obese. When all other remedies failed, Etta resorted to gastric bypass surgery. In 2004 a new slender Etta released “Blues To The Bone”, winning a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. The “All The Way” album followed in 2006.

In 2008 Etta was portrayed by Beyoncé Knowles in Cadillac Records, the film based on the story of Chess Records. The two women posed happily together for photographers at the Hollywood premiere, but Etta made headlines later when she criticised Beyoncé for singing ‘At Last’ at President Obama’s inauguration ball.

Subsequently, Etta was treated for several serious health issues. While hospitalised she became infected with the MRSA virus and was diagnosed with sepsis. Her family also revealed that she had been battling Alzheimer’s disease for two years. Etta’s final album “The Dreamer” was released in 2011, a few months before her death.

Selected releases

  • The Complete Modern and Kent Recordings

    Comprising, as it does, each of the 32 masters Etta recorded for the Modern and Kent labels between 1954 and 1959 – not to mention a further nine alternate takes, seven of which are previously unissued – this set is a dream come true for fans of her early work. No more scratching around on compilation CDs (actually, many of these tracks are brand new to the digital format); here are Miss Peaches’ complete pre-Chess recordings on one great mid-price 2CD package.

  • Hickory Dickory Dock

    For the less adventurous or non-completist listener, this 22-track single disc should do the trick – also mid-price. 

  • Good Rockin' Mama

    “Good Rockin’ Mama” compiles the best of Etta’s up-tempo Modern decks into a 12-inch vinyl album that will prod any dancin’ party into life, from her first single ‘The Wallflower’ (aka ‘Roll With Me Henry’) through to her final recording for the company, ‘Baby, Baby, Every Night’. All 14 tracks are classic examples of the young Etta. For anyone who needs further enlightenment, Etta sounds like a female Little Richard on ‘Tough Lover’ and ‘Dance With Me Henry’ (a ‘Wallflower’ remake) – both recorded in New Orleans with many of the musicians who frequently backed Richard. There’s her original take on ‘W-O-M-A-N’, which Etta returned to on a couple of occasions later in her career, and for lovers of TV ads everywhere, ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ and ‘Good Rockin’ Daddy’. It’s a safe bet that anyone who buys this hot biscuit, in its fetching shade of fuchsia vinyl, will just flip it over and play it again from start to finish when it’s through. Not just good rockin’, but great. 

  • Who's Blue? Rare Chess Recordings of the 60s and 70s

    This set of Chess tracks eschews the hits that have been endlessly anthologised, instead cherry-picking B-sides and album cuts, many making their CD debut. Recorded in various locales (Chicago, Muscle Shoals, Nashville, Los Angeles, even New Jersey) the tracks showcase Etta’s artistry in numerous styles. Her stock-in-trade blues shouting comes to the fore on a couple of Willie Dixon-penned barn-burners, while she indulges her passion for jazzy crooning on ‘It Could Happen To You’ and ‘I Worry About You’, while she tackles 70s-style rock on ‘Only A Fool’ and offers a few country tunes, notably a sublime reading of Mickey Newbury’s ‘Sweet Memories’. 

  • Call My Name

    During Etta’s glory years at Chess Records she released 13 marvellous albums, but fewer than half of them have ever been released on CD in their entirety. Whereas her previous LPs had been pieced together from various sessions, “Call My Name” was conceived as a whole. Of its 12 tracks, ‘Happiness’, ‘That’s All I Want From You’, ‘Have Faith In Me’, ‘You Are My Sunshine’, ‘Nobody Loves Me’, ‘It’s All Right’ and ‘Nobody Like You’ make their CD debut here. It might not have sold too well at the time, and it spawned no big hit singles, but if you prefer your Chicago soul punchy and emotional, of all Etta’s albums “Call My Name” is the one for you. Our reissue comes with 12 bonus titles. 

  • Losers Weepers

    This expansion of Etta’s 1970 album “Losers Weepers” really brings a full-on focus to some great music that fell by the wayside when originally released. Her sublime versions of ‘I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)’, ‘The Man I Love’ and ‘For All We Know’ are the logical continuation of her collaborations with arranger Riley Hampton which produced the timeless “At Last” album, and her vocal on the Falcons’ R&B classic ‘I Found A Love’ is almost as riveting as that of the song’s original singer, Wilson Pickett. No matter how well you know Etta James, this set of songs will increase and enrich your knowledge of her work no end. 

  • Queen Of Soul

    Chess must have had much to be confident about with 1964’s “Queen Of Soul” – its very title implying that the company’s bestselling artist brooked no pretenders. Opening tune ‘Bobby Is His Name’ is gorgeous, while her take on Irma Thomas’ ‘I Wish Someone Would Care’ fits her perfectly. Yet “Queen Of Soul” failed to ignite upon release and appears largely forgotten today. Strange for an album that offers up such a potent claim to be the new ruler of the hippest black music form taking shape across the USA, and strange that one packed with so much good music has been overlooked for so long.


  • Etta Is Betta Than Evvah!

    “Etta Is Betta Than Evvah!”, the final album of Etta’s tumultuous 16-year tenure at Chess, is issued here on CD for the first time, together with 10 bonus titles from the mid-70s. By 1976 Chess Records had been purchased by All Platinum, at whose New Jersey studio the bulk of the album was recorded, with former Motown sax hero Mike Terry producing. The players on the sessions were the All Platinum house band, otherwise known as funk/disco hitmakers the Rimshots. ‘Little Bit Of Love’ and ‘I’ve Been A Fool’ were penned by Freddie Beckmeier, the bass player with Etta’s own band, while the album also featured well-chosen covers of ‘A Love Vibration’ (Ann Peebles), ‘Groove Me’ (King Floyd), ‘Blinded By Love’ (Johnny Winter), ‘Jump Into Love’ (Rufus) and ‘Ain’t No Pity In The Naked City’ (Pat Lundy). Bonus tracks include a version of Tom Jans’ yearning country ballad ‘Lovin’ Arms’, the only recording ever to be released from Etta’s shelved 1974 sessions with producer Jerry Wexler.