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January 25, 2024

20 Vintage Photos of a Young Etta James in the 1960s

“I understand what I’m singing about. You know, songs that I get, any song that I decide to sing or a song that someone sends to me or recommends, I like to be able to relate to that song. Not just, you know, have a song there that talks about come fly me to the moon, let me dangle on the stars. That’s not my cup of tea.

“That’s not real. I want to sing real stuff. I want to know what I’m singing about and I want to be able to really relate to that and I think that's what I can do now. I think that’s what I definitely do. Matter of fact, I know I do.”
Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938 in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles to a teen mother and absentee father. Despite a viciously rough home life, James was a gospel-singing prodigy at five years old. When she was 12, James moved with her mother to San Francisco and started a doo-wop girl group, The Creolettes. They gained fame performing with the famous bandleader, Johnny Otis. In 1955, James launched her solo career with her first hit single, “The Wallflower.”

In 1960, her debut studio album At Last! on the famous Chicago label, Chess Records, was released. New audiences were immediately mesmerized by the tremendous range of her contralto vocals. Etta James had an incredible ability to croon heartwarming bluesy ballads, especially highlighted in her most iconic song “At Last,” that went to No. 2 on the R &B charts and No. 47 on the Billboard Pop Chart. Aside from her R&B prowess, James also masterfully belted out gospel and rock and roll-style vocals on songs throughout the 1960s. This talent was most remarkably showcased on her 1964 album, Etta James Rocks the House and her 1967 top ten R&&B hit, “Tell Mama.”

Although she struggled with a heroin addiction until 1988 when she got clean, James had a successful career nonetheless. She put out critically-acclaimed albums, including Etta James (1973), that garnered her a Grammy nomination. Recognizing her enormous contribution to American music, James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001. In her mid-sixties, the indomitable singer won two more Grammy Awards for Let’s Roll (2003) and Blues to the Bone (2004).

She released her final studio album, The Dreamer, in 2011, passing away a year later at 73 from leukemia. Although physically gone, James forever lives on in her iconic songs and her legendary first album that is almost 60 years old!


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