Today we take a look at the late, great Etta James whose birthday is today. Born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938 to a 14 year old mother, Etta spent most of her time growing up among friends and relatives. Her singing career began when she entered the church choir. Although she was still young, she became a soloist and performed with the group on local radio stations. When her foster mother died when she was 12 years old, Etta went to live with her real mother in San Francisco under minimal adult supervision. This led her into trouble, but at the same time her fondness for music continued to grow
Etta got together with a group of her friends and started the Creolettes. The girls caught the eye of the late Johnny Otis when he heard them sing “Roll With Me Henry,” – a racy answer song to Hank Ballard’s infamous “Work with Me Annie.” He got them a record deal under the name of the Peaches, and although they had a couple of hits in the 1950s, the group dissolved and Etta began to pursue a solo career.
Although it took some time for her solo records to gain an audience, Leonard Chess signed her to a new record deal in 1960. This helped Etta’s career take off and she scored several hits with “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “My Dearest Darling,” and “Trust in Me.” Unfortunately as her fame grew, so did her problems with drugs. By the time she was 21, Etta was addicted to heroin. She found it difficult to balance her professional life with her habit, but by 1967 she began recording with producer Rick Hall at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama where she rocked back onto the R&B charts with “Tell Mama” and “I’d Rather Go Blind.”
While Etta’s career went through ups and downs during the 1970s, the quality of her recorded work was always something special. She gave life to many famous songs and one of my favorites has always been “I Just Want to Make Love to You” from her famous 1961 release, At Last! I love her growling voice on this song. She belts out this passionate tune like nothing you’ve ever heard before. The song is timeless and is a fitting reminder to how much we will miss Etta’s amazing vocals.