Etta James as she appeared in the late 50s
Etta James  was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25th, 1938, in Los Angeles, California. While still a young child she moved with her family to San Francisco where she learned to sing the same way so many blueswomen have... singing in the church. By her mid-teens her musical interests turned, the way it did for so many her age, to Rhythm & Blues.

It was during this time she met Johnny Otis and began performing with him in the Los Angeles area. Together with Otis they wrote an R&B number called "Roll With Me Henry" as an "answer song" to a Hank Ballard hit called "Work With Me Annie". When they recorded it together in 1955 for Modern Records they had second thoughts about the suggestive title and renamed it "The Wallflower". It soared to number 2 on the R&B charts. Singer Georgia Gibbs recorded a sanitized version of the song and released it as "Dance With Me Henry" and it went to the number one spot on the mainstream pop charts that same year.

All this success led to a an encounter with Harvey Fuqua, a charming and handsome member of The Moonglows. Etta became infatuated with Fuqua and agreed to go with him to Chicago to record for the Chess subsidiary Argo Records, where Fuqua was an A&R man. Fired by a passionate attraction to the much older Fuqua, who was quite unaware of her feelings, she recorded a series of steamy, heart wrenching ballads like "All I Could Do Was Cry" and the heartbreaking "If I Can't Have You", a duet with Fuqua, the man of her youthful dreams. 

 Etta at the St. Louis Blues Festival 1996 
 photo by Dick Waterman
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Etta toured the south quite a bit during this period and the loneliness of the road and the heartbreak of watching Fuqua marry another woman drove her to the easy relief offered by drugs. Despite having many R&B chart toppers, and a mainstream hit single "Tell Mama / I'd Rather Go Blind" that reached #23 on the pop charts, Etta's career began a downward spiral. It was during this period that Etta recorded one of her most enduring hits and, I think, one of the greatest singles of all time... "At Last".

She eventually moved back to L.A. and cleaned up her act. She went back to Chess in 1973 and began a second career. By 1978 she was opening for the Rolling Stones.  

Today she continues to record and wow audiences all over the world, and in 1993 was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.


P.W. Fenton

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