Etta James Biography – Childhood, Career, Life Achievements And Timeline

The legacy left behind by famous R&B singer Etta James will forever remain green in the minds of her fans. The level of acclaim she received during her career of over sixty years is rare and very few female R&B artists can lay claim to such fame. She was once referred to as “the greatest of all modern blues singers” by music producer Jerry Wexler.

Etta possessed one of the most powerful voices in the history of R&B and she recorded several albums with many popular hit singles during her lifetime. We can conveniently surmise that the best of Etta James are her singles I’d Rather Go Blind, At Last, All I Could Do Was Cry and Tell Mama. Although she faced a lot of ups and down in the course of her life, she was still able to overcome her shortcomings and make a resounding success out of her career.

Etta James – Bio, Childhood

Etta’s given name was Jamesetta Hawkins and she was fondly called Peaches. Her birth date is 25th of January 1938 and her mum is said to have given birth to her at age 14 but the identity of her dad was unknown. Although Etta had cause to believe that Rudolf Wanderone Jr was her biological dad, Rudolf never confirmed the claim.

The young Etta is said to have had a troubled childhood and she was raised by relatives and friends instead of her biological mum. Etta later joined the Baptist Church choir during her stay with her grandparents and became a soloist. She started sliding into juvenile delinquency when her foster mother died, and she found herself living with her biological mum in San Francisco.

However, Etta’s love for music prevailed over her juvenile delinquency and together with a couple of friends, she formed the Creolettes singing group. Their songs got the attention of the famous bandleader Johnny Otis who made arrangements for them to collaborate with Modern Records. They made some level of success under the name The Peaches but unfortunately, they broke up after a while and Etta decided to go solo.

Career Timeline

Etta’s solo career did not start until 1960 when Leonard Chess signed her on, she stayed with Chess Records and also recorded for its subsidiary Argo and Checker until the late 1970s. Some of her then top hits were My Dearest Darling, All I Could Do Was Cry and Trust in Me. Her career started reclining when she started doing drugs as a teenager, but she resurfaced in 1967, with producer Rick Hall of Fame Studio Muscle Shoals Alabama. The tunes “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “Tell Mama” took her back to the R&B charts. Because of her addiction, Etta James was in rehab in the early 1970s but by 1973, with the help of music producer Gabriel Mekler, her rock-oriented album titled “Only A Fool” came to light. The famed star was eventually signed by Warner Bros and in collaboration with the producer, Jerry Wexler, produced the album titled “Deep in the Night”.

The singer’s addiction to heroin soon resurfaced and she fell back into old habits, but by 1978, she became sober and was signed by Island records. During her days there, Etta worked with music producer Barry Beckett to produce the album titled “Seven Year Itch” and this time around, she was determined to build a successful career. Etta frequented several live shows and started recording on a regular basis, notable among them were “The Right Time” which came in 1992 and “Stickin’ to My Guns” in 1990.

By 1994, she was already with the Private Music label and from 1995 to 2003, Etta released a total of eight albums for the record label. Her autobiography titled “Rage to Survive” came into existence in 2003, it chronicled the life and experiences of Etta James. Her health started declining in 2010 but by 2011, she dropped her last album titled “The Dreamer”. Later in that year, she was diagnosed with leukaemia and died the next year on the 20th of January 2012 at the age of 73.


Etta’s special musical genre – R&B, which bridged the gap between rock and roll, rhythm as well as blues earned her a plethora of awards. Notable among them are 17 Blues Music Awards as well as six Grammy Awards. Her induction into the Blues Hall of Fame came in 2001, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and ultimately, her induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame came in 1999. Etta James got the #22 ranking of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time by Rolling Stone Magazine which also ranked her #62 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.