Most of you know that the great Soul/Blues singer Etta James died last week. Today, what would have been her 74th birthday, gives us the opportunity to remember and pay tribute to one of the great voices of our time. As a singer, I can’t understate how much of an influence she’s had on me and countless others. She had the rare talent of being able to project attitude and ferocity at one moment and then turn around and sing with tenderness and vulnerability without missing a beat. Her talent was incomparable and she left us too soon.
Etta was born in Los Angeles under the name Jamesetta Hawkins on this day in 1938. Her mother, Dorothy Hawkins, who was only fourteen at the time. She never knew her father but suspected that he might be the legendary pool player Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone, who she met briefly in 1987. Her mother, sadly, was mostly absent during her early childhood, and she was raised by various caregivers, many of whom abused her.
She began voice training at the age of five and quickly became a popular singer at her church. In 1950, her mother took her to San Francisco where she was exposed to the early doo wop sound. She formed her first group, The Creolettes, a couple of years later. The group was taken under the wing of R&B singer Johnny Otis (who, strangely, also died last week, three days before Etta) who convinced them to change their name to The Peaches. Otis got them signed to Modern Records and gave Jamesetta the stage name that she would carry for the rest of her life. Her first release as Etta James, “Dance With Me, Henry,” was released in early 1955. The song reached number one on the Hot Rhythm & Blues Tracks charts and earned Etta and The Peaches an opening slot on Little Richard’s national tour.