Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles, California, to a 14-year-old mother. She stated that her mother told her that her father was pool player Rudolph “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone, who was Caucasian, and that they received financial support from him on the condition that they keep his paternity a secret.
James was born in Los Angeles in 1938, at a time when Wanderone was known to be managing a pool hall in Washington, D.C. By the age of 5, James was known as a gospel prodigy, gaining fame by singing in her church choir and on the radio.
At age 12, she moved north to San Francisco, where she formed a trio and was soon working for bandleader Johnny Otis.
In 1960, Etta signed a recording contract with Chess Records. The recording company went into high gear with James, releasing many duets with her then-boyfriend, the married Harvey Fuqua, who was the lead singer of the Moonglows at the time.
One of her duets with Fuqua, called “If I Can’t Have You”, became a hit on the R&B charts in 1960. As a solo artist she had more enduring success. One of her first singles released by Chess in 1960 was called “All I Could Do Was Cry”.
This Blues number became a big hit for James on the R&B charts in 1960. James’ sassy vibe added a significant touch of personality to the song. Leonard Chess, one of the founders of Chess Records, helped James along the way. He saw the potential for James to go into a more Pop-oriented direction.
James is regarded as having bridged the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll, and is the winner of six Grammys and 17 Blues Music Awards. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001, and the Grammy Hall of Fame in both 1999 and 2008.
In 2008, James was portrayed by Beyoncé Knowles in the film Cadillac Records, based on the James’ label of 18 years, Chess Records, and how label founder and producer Leonard Chess helped the career of James and other label mates.
The film portrayed her pop hit “At Last”, though James also had other big hits. James and Knowles were seen at a red carpet event following the film’s release embracing each other.
James later said that her previous criticizing remarks about Knowles for having performed “At Last” at the inauguration of Barack Obama were a joke stemming from how she felt hurt that she herself was not invited to sing her song.
As she entered her 70s, Etta James began struggling with health issues. She was hospitalized in 2010 for a blood infection, along with other ailments.
It was later revealed that the legendary singer suffered from dementia, and was receiving treatment for leukemia. Her medical problems came to light in court papers filed by her husband, Artis Mills. Etta James died at her home in Riverside, California, on January 20, 2012.