When Etta James sang, she wrapped her audiences in the warmth and sheer power of her emotions. Who could not be moved by the bluesy elation of, “At Last,” or the low-down dirty blues of, “I’d Rather Go Blind.”
Etta James, born as Jamesset Hawkins, was the child of a 14-year-old single mother. She grew up in South Los Angeles during World War II never knowing her father. Over the years, she became convinced that he was famous pool shark Minnesota Fats.
With her blond hair and light complexion, she stood out in her African-American community. She stood out even more when she started singing in the choir of St. Paul Baptist Church. The choirmaster quickly singled her out for solos when she was just five or six years old.
Her mother left her in the care of several people over the years, but after her foster mother died when Etta was 12, Etta’s mother came back into her life. They moved to San Francisco and it was there that she formed a trio called The Creolettes. Johnny Otis discovered her at this time and changed the group’s name to Peaches. She soon became part of a short-lived duo called Etta & Harvey with Harvey Fuqua of the doo-wop group the Moonglows. The Moonglows had a hit with “Sincerely” in 1955.
She toured with Johnny Guitar Watson, who had a lasting effect on her approach to music exploring blues, R & B and jazz. It was a formula that brought her to the public’s notice in a big way. She sang a raunchy version of Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want To Make Love To You.” It was sassy and sultry and impossible to listen to without swaying in your seat. Her delivery of “I would Rather Go Blind” gave her listeners a peak at her soul as it dripped from her lips and oozed from every pour.
The saucy, “The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry),” was an answer to Hank Ballard & the Midnighters’s bawdy, “Work With Me Annie.” It was hugely popular, but was quite controversial coming from a 17-year-old girl. “I’d Rather Go Blind” was co-written with Ellington Jordan while he was in prison. For tax reasons, she gave the writing credit to Medallions singer Billy Foster while they were briefly married.
Unfortunately, Etta became involved in taking heroin. She told the Los Angeles Times in 1993,
“All of my role models at that time, the ones I looked up to most, were heroin addicts. I think, subconsciously, I thought that was a cool thing.”
When she was arrested for heroin possession, she was given the choice of prison or rehab. She kicked her habit in rehab in 1974. However, she started using cocaine a few years after becoming involved with an addict. She then experienced a spiritual epiphany and gave up both cocaine and alcohol.