Etta James Passes Away

January 20, 2012 by Amy Gold

Etta James ca. early 1960s
Etta James ca. early 1960s

After battling leukemia since early 2011, soul legend Etta James (January 25, 1938 - January 20, 2012) passed away on January 20, 2012 at Riverside Community Hospital in Riverside, CA, just five days before her 74th birthday. The legendary singer, who was also diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2008, died with her husband, Artis Mills, and her two sons, Donto and Sametto, at her side.

She was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles on January 25, 1938. A child prodigy, she began singing gospel music at age 5 at her church and on the radio. At 14, she formed a girl group trio, the Creolettes, and was soon discovered by bandleader Johnny Otis (of "Willie and the Hand Jive" fame). Otis took the Creolettes under his wing, changed their name to The Peaches (her nickname), and helped sign the group to Modern Records. He also gave the young singer her stage name, Etta James, by reversing the syllables in her first name, and he produced her first hit, "The Wallflower" (also known as "Dance With Me, Henry" and "Roll With Me, Henry"), which topped the Billboard R&B charts in 1955. This song, which James co-wrote, was a racy answer song to Hank Ballard's bawdy hit, "Work with Me, Annie." This early success immediately paved the way for an opening spot on Little Richard's national tour and brought more fame to the group. In the late 1950s, The Peaches broke up and James launched her solo career.

Etta James' career took off in 1960 with "All I Could Do Was Cry," "My Dearest Darling," and "If I Can't Have You" (a duet with then-boyfriend Harvey Fuqua of The Moonglows). Her many other hits also included "Trust In Me" (1961), "Pushover" (1963), and the gospel-charged "Tell Mama" (1968). James is most famous for her smooth yet impassioned performance of her signature song, "At Last" (1961), which has become an American pop classic. Her long string of hits continued through the late 1970s on the Billboard R&B charts, and she continued recording many albums in styles ranging from smooth jazz to gritty R&B and performing extensively throughout the rest of the 20th century and beyond. In 2003, she published an autobiography, "Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story, and in November 2011, she released her final album, "The Dreamer."

In 1993, Etta James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2001, she was inducted into both the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Her numerous other honors also include a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and many Grammys. In 2004, she was ranked at #62 by Rolling Stone Magazine on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Over the years, James has been a key influence on many R&B singers, and acclaimed producer Jerry Wexler named her "the greatest of all modern blues singers." As she put it, "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."