Since her breakout doo wop days in the 1950s, singer Etta James has emerged as one of the great vocalists of the last half-century; yet her immense talent was only fully recognized in the early 1990s. She crossed more than a few rocky passages on the road to success, but ultimately these experiences enrich the artist's repertoire, anchoring airy ballads - such as her signature song, At Last - and elevating grittier numbers. James channels raw emotion into whichever genre she touches, slipping seamlessly between soul, R&B, jazz, blues and rock in her inimitable contralto. Breakthrough
At age five, Jamesetta Hawkins was a gospel prodigy, singing in her Los Angeles Baptist church choir. She moved to San Francisco with her mother in 1950 and formed a vocalist group with two other girls. Two years later, when all its members were 14 years old, the trio auditioned for bandleader Johnny Otis. Against her mother's wishes, Hawkins headed back to L.A. in 1954 to record the single Roll with Me Henry
for Modern Records with the Otis band and singer Richard Berry. Otis reversed the young singer's first and last names and gave her nickname, "Peaches," to the trio. The following year, the single, which had been given the more modest title The Wallflower
, topped the R&B charts.
The Peaches split up soon after, but Etta James continued to record with Modern for the rest of the 1950s. In 1960, the singer traveled east to Chicago and signed with Chess Records. A pair of duets with the Moonglows lead singer Harvey Fuqua and a string of successful singles beginning with All I Could Do Was Cry were followed by her 1961 debut album At Last!, which featured jazz standards and classic ballads such as the title track and Trust in Me.
In 1963, "Miss Peaches," as she is still known, released her first live album, Etta James Rocks the House, which was cut at the New Era Club in Nashville. Four years later, she recorded Tell Mama, a hit Southern soul track, as well as the achingly poignant single I'd Rather Go Blind. In 1973, her self-titled album was nominated for a Grammy.
Despite her success, James had started taking heroin in the mid-1960s and battled her addiction for more than 20 years before she was able to quit completely. Her longtime husband, Artis Mills, served a ten year prison sentence after the couple was arrested for heroin possession in 1969.
The 1980s started off slowly for the artist, but just as the decade was coming to an end, James sounded her comeback with Seven Year Itch, her first album as part of a new contract with Island Records. The following year, she cut the classic hip-hop track Droppin' Rhymes on Drums with rapper Def Jef, introducing the singer to a new, younger audience.
In 1988, "Miss Peaches" made a special trip to Montreal to perform at the Festival. Audiences hadn't seen the vocalist in two decades, making her appearance a happy reunion. Five years later, James released Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday, a tribute album to one of the singer's main inspirations, which won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance in 1994.
That same year, James was set to make her much anticipated return to the Festival, but cancelled at the last minute. Audiences had to wait another year to see her take the stage alongside pioneering bluesman John Mayall.
In 1995, the artist published her autobiography, A Rage to Survive, chronicling her tumultuous - and ultimately triumphant - rise to fame. Six years later, she was inducted into both the Blues and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame (having already been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993). In 2003, James was the recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
She made her third visit to the Festival in 2006, performing classics from her extensive repertoire as well as songs from All the Way, an album of pop covers she released earlier that year. In 2011, James announced that she was retiring from music. The Dreamer would be her last album. The singer passed away in Los Angeles on January 20, 2012.