Profile of Etta James

Etta James recording at Fame Studios
House Of Fame LLC / Contributor / Getty Images

One of the R&B and blues world's greatest divas, Etta James gave the genre a boost into the mainstream and helped develop the rock craze in the process with her 1965 hit "The Wallflower" (aka "Roll With Me, Henry"). Her signature song, 1961's "At Last," is one of the most popular wedding soundtracks of all time.  James was known for her saucy and sometimes scandalous stage demeanor and served as a major influence on rough blues-rock singers such as Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, and Rod Stewart. 


Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles, CA; died January 20, 2012, Riverside, CA


R&B, Blues, Gospel, Soul, Jazz



Early Years

Etta Jame's was born Jansetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938 in Los Angeles Califor' wild life began early on—she grew up in a single-mother household and was eventually expelled from her high school, by which time she'd already formed more than one doo-wop group with her schoolmates. Bandleader Johnny Otis, later famous for "Willie and the Hand Jive," had the group record a novelty song of sorts, an answer to Hank Ballard and the Midnighters' huge smash "Work With Me Annie." The female response record, dubbed "Roll With Me, Henry," was another smash, though it was changed to "Dance With Me, Henry," and, later, "The Wallflower," to disguise the frank sexual nature of the song.


The hits dried up after that, however, and Etta's solo career was slowing until she signed with Chess Records in 1960. It was there that the Chess brothers redesigned Etta as a torchy jazz-pop singer, leading to hits like "At Last" and "All I Could Do Was Cry." 1967's "Tell Mama" was another hit that marked a fork in her career, steering her more towards gutbucket soul. Etta stayed with the Chess label until it folded in 1975, long after most artists had left, and moved with the times to a more rock-based approach like Tina Turner's, becoming noted for covers of offbeat artists like Randy Newman and Prince.

Later Years

Eventually she turned to a straight blues approach, and since 1989 has reigned as one of the singular stars on that scene, loaded with Grammy and Blues Foundation awards. Etta's health had begun failing in the Nineties, however, as her weight ballooned to over 400 pounds and doctors were forced to deny her the knee-replacement surgery she desperately needed. However, in 2003 she became one of the first celebrities to undergo gastric bypass surgery, and she subsequently dropped almost half her body weight. She toured and recorded regularly, and remained one of the premiere draws on the jazz and blues circuit. In January 2011 she was diagnosed with leukemia, and recorded her final album, the acclaimed "The Dreamer." Etta James passed away on January 20, 2012.

Other facts

  • Had a history of substance abuse and legal trouble, including addictions to heroin, cocaine, and alcohol, as well as arrests for forgery and bad checks
  • Claimed her father is the legendary pool player Rudolf Wanderone, a/k/a "Minnesota Fats"
  • Sang on local gospel radio as a soloist at the age of five
  • Recorded in Cosimo Matassa's legendary New Orleans studio in the late Fifties
  • Had an affair with the married Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows, with whom she cut two hit duets
  • Sang on "Henry" with Richard Berry, original creator of the R&B hit "Louie, Louie," and was later related to him by her daughter's marriage


  • Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1993)
  • GRAMMY Awards (1994, 1999, 2002. 2003, 2004)
  • GRAMMY Hall of Fame (2008)
  • Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award (1989)
  • BMI Lifetime Achievement Award (2003)
  • Hollywood Walk of Fame (7080 Hollywood Blvd.)

Recorded Work

#1 hits:

"The Wallflower" (a/k/a "Roll With Me, Henry") (1955)

Top 10 hits:

"Good Rockin' Daddy" (1955)
"All I Could Do Was Cry" (1960)
"If I Can't Have You" with Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows(1960)
"My Dearest Darling" (1960}
"At Last" (1961)
"Trust In Me" (1961)
"Don't Cry Baby" (1961)
"Something's Got A Hold On Me" (1962)
"Stop The Wedding" (1962)
"Pushover" (1963}
"Loving You More Every Day" (1964)
"Tell Mama" (1967)

#1 albums:

Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday (1994)
Burnin' Down The House (2002)
Let's Roll (2003)
The Definitive Collection (2006)


Blue Gardenia (2001)

Top 10 albums:

All The Way (2006)


Love's Been Rough On Me (1997)
12 Songs Of Christmas (1998)
Life, Love And The Blues (1998)
The Best Of Etta James: 20th Century Masters (1999)
The Heart Of A Woman (1999)
Matriarch of the Blues (2002)
Love Songs (2001)
Blues To The Bone (2004)
All The Way (2006)


Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday (1994)Time After Time (1995)

Other important recordings: "Spoonful" with Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows, "A Sunday Kind Of Love," "Fool That I Am," "Dream," "It's Too Soon To Know," "Seven Day Fool," "Next Door To The Blues," "Would It Make Any Difference To You," "Payback," "Two Sides (To Every Story)," "Baby What You Want Me To Do," "In The Basement - Part 1" with Sugar Pie DeSanto, "I Prefer You," "Security," "Almost Persuaded," "Losers Weepers - Part 1," "I Found A Love," "All The Way Down," "Leave Your Hat On," "Out on the Street, Again," "Tough Lover," "Waiting For Charlie (To Come Home)," "These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)," "I'd Rather Go Blind," "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)," "Feeling Uneasy," "Let's Burn Down The Cornfield," "Loving Arms," "Take It To The Limit," "Damn Your Eyes," "Whatever Gets You Through The Night," "The Man I Love," "The Blues Is My Business," "The Sky Is Crying"
Covered by: Christina Aguilera, Rod Stewart, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Cyndi Lauper, Joan Osborne, Joni Mitchell, Chicken Shack, Paul Weller, The Temprees, Warren Hill, Sydney Youngblood, Mary Coughlan, Renee Olstead
Appears in the movies: "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1978), "Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll" (1987), "Tap" (1989), "Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm and Blues" (1998)