Born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938, Etta James was the daughter of an African-American single teenage mother. Her biological father was rumored to be Caucasian. James believed her father to be a pool player of Swiss descent named Rudolf Wanderone. James was raised in foster families.
James began singing at an early age. When she was five-years-old, she began singing at church and wowed audiences.
When she was 12, her foster mother died and James moved with her mother to San Francisco. There she formed a girl group called The Creolettes. The group soon had the attention of musician Johnny Otis. He helped the group sign a record deal. The song "Dance with Me, Henry" hit the top of the charts and earned the group the gig to open for Little Richard on his national tour.
James signed with Chess records in 1960 as a solo artist and became the Chicago label's biggest female star with hits like “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “Trust in Me”and "At Last."
James continued to record many more hits over the years, but also battled her own personal demon of addiction. She found re-newed success in the 1990s with the popularity of her jazz standard albums.
During her career, the singer won six Grammys and countless other awards and was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
She died in January 2012 after a long illness.
On a personal note, James had a huge impact on me when I first saw her perform in 1994. She became one of my all-time favorite singers and I saw her in concert another dozen times. She became a figure in my novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, as well. I only wish I had sent her a copy of the book--so she could know about that tribute.
“A lot of people think the blues is depressing, but that’s not the blues I’m singing. When I’m singing blues, I’m singing life. People that can’t stand to listen to the blues, they’ve got to be phonies.” -Etta James
Mixed Experience History Month is the annual blog post series created by writer Heidi Durrowcelebrating the history of the Mixed experience. Established in 2007, Mixed Experience History Month is an effort to highlight the long history of folks involved in the Mixed experience. Please look for more profiles of people, places and events of the Mixed experience every weekday of May at Lightskinned-ed Girl, the blog! Thanks for reading. And check out some of the previous year's profiles: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011.