Etta James had a legendary singing voice, but there was something else legendary about her: her lifestyle. The girl knew how to party, which she probably learned from her teenage mother. Unfortunately, it led her straight to the psych ward. That would be the end for most people, but James staged a legendary comeback that involved The Rolling Stones, Christina Aguilera, and even Beyonce. So why isn't "Etta James" a household name? Let’s let these edgy facts about the Comeback Queen speak for themselves.
In Los Angeles, California, on January 25, 1938, 14-year-old Dorothy Hawkins gave birth to a baby girl, who she named Jamesetta. Hawkins didn’t have a husband and wasn’t telling anyone who Jamesetta’s father was. Some thought—judging by Jamesetta’s light skin and almond eyes—that dad was Italian. Later Hawkins would tell her daughter that her father was a pool hustler named Rudolf Wanderone: also known as Minnesota Fats.
Could Jamesetta believe her mother? Well, she was quite a questionable character.
Hawkins lived in the dangerous and impoverished Watts neighborhood of LA, but she had no problem leaving her young daughter alone in their apartment. When Hawkins left her baby alone, she was usually out cavorting with men. It was only a matter of time before something had to give. Soon, young Jamesetta came to the attention of social services, who took her from her mother and placed her with various foster parents. When Jamesetta talked about her mother, she simply called her “the Mystery Lady”.
But if you think foster care was a positive change for Jamesetta, you’ve got it wrong.
Two of Jamestta’s semi-regular foster parents were Sarge and Mama Lu. Sarge had a problem with drink, but he also liked music. When he noticed that Jamesetta could sing, he liked to show her off to his poker buddies. In the middle of the night, if Sarge felt like hearing music, he would wake up Jamesetta and demand that she sing for him and his buddies. If Jamestta didn’t comply with his demand, there would be a beating until she did.
The poor girl needed to get away from Sarge: Maybe the church would help?
One of Jamesetta’s escapes from a horrible home life was at church. She attended St. Paul’s Baptist church, and people there soon noticed her for her beautiful singing voice. The music director of the church took Jamesetta under his wing and decided to train her to be a real singer. The director’s name was James Earle Hines, but he wasn't a savior either. He helped make James a better singer—but his methods were cruel and unusual.
Hines’ wanted to get Jamesetta’s voice to come from her gut, not her chest—and he had a brutal method to make it happen. Whenever Jamesetta would sing from her chest, he’d punch her. Jamesetta’s escape from her home life had now turned into a new nightmare. Luckily, Hines was gay, or it might have had an even darker turn.
Yet, despite the chest pounding, James had great respect for Hines and what he did for her voice. Because of her work with Hines—or in spite of it—Jamesetta’s voice became extraordinary.
The “Chitlin Circuit” was a series of venues around America that provided Black entertainers a place to perform for Black audiences. This was hugely important because of segregation, which severely limited opportunities for Black performers. Through this circuit, Jamesetta got a chance to perform in Nashville, Tennessee at R&B clubs.
She grew up performing on the Chitlin Circuit, but Sarge and Mama Lu were still her guardians. This went on until tragedy struck.
Jamesetta was just 12 years old when she was working in clubs and bars. This was only possible while the lenient Mama Lu and Sarge were her guardians and allowed it. In 1950, however, Mama Lu passed. So who would take care of James now? Well, out of the woodwork popped Jamesetta's real mother. She lived in San Francisco, and she wanted Jamesetta with her.
Jamesetta’s mother Dorothy Hawkins had migrated with many African Americans to the Fillmore District in San Francisco, California. There was some tension there, as white residents were unsure about having such a large influx of African Americans. Jamesetta didn’t take notice of the race relations. Instead, she started skipping school and drinking. There was something else delinquent about Jamesetta’s behavior: she liked Doo-wop music.
You’d think mom would be happy about this interest in music. Instead, she hated it.
Jameseeta’s mother was a fan of music but not of the doo-wop that her daughter was listening to. Hawkins thought jazz was the only way to go, and her favorite singer was Billie Holiday. Hawkins believed that jazz brought out more sophistication than what Jamesetta was trying to do. Jamesetta respected performers like Holiday, but her heart was in a different sound.
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Jamesetta put together a girl group and they started performing on street corners. Because the young women in the group were mostly light-skinned like James, they chose the name the Creolettes. Jamesetta was still barely a teenager, and her dream was already coming true. But this was only the beginning. Her career would move forward because of one man: the multitalented Johnny Otis.
Jamesetta met Otis in one of two ways—the story is unclear. Either Otis heard the Creolettes playing in LA, or Jamesetta pursued Otis at his hotel room after a performance and begged for an audition. Knowing James, I’d put my money on the latter. Whichever it was, Otis took the Creolettes and decided to make them into stars. The first thing they had to change, however, was their name.
Otis arranged to get the Creolettes signed up to Modern Records—but there was a catch. He thought the group’s name was a little on the nose and offered up Peaches as an alternative. The name stuck and Modern Records signed them up. But that wasn't all he gave her: Otis also thought that the name Jamesetta was a bit of a mouthful. His solution was simple: just reverse the two parts of her name and put a space between them. Voila! Etta James was born.
At this time, answer songs were extremely popular. An answer song was when one artist wrote and performed a song in answer to the lyrics of another artist’s song. Otis had an idea to answer a Hank Ballard song called “Work With Me, Annie,” and he wanted James to help him with it. Well, “Work With Me Annie” already had some very racy lyrics, but James and Otis had a plan to go one step further.
Now remember, James was just 16 years old at this time, while Otis was in his 30s. Together their goal was to outdo the innuendo in “Work With Me, Annie.” The result was “Roll With Me, Henry”. Forget the lyrics, even the title was too risque for the time. Many thought it referred to a roll in the hay—which it probably did. To avoid the expected censorship, they renamed the song “The Wallflower”. This was so it sounded like the planned activity was dancing and not something more horizontal.
So where was mom in all this? Did she approve of her daughter writing dirty songs with an older man?
James’ mother wasn't doing much of a job of raising her daughter, so James moved in with Otis, who was paying James $10 for every performance and keeping the rest. But as far as her writing skills went, Otis was much more generous. Her $14,000 for writing “The Wallflower” went into a trust fund that James could have when she turned 21.
After all, what would a young woman need that much money for? It would likely just get her into trouble. Well, just you wait and see.
James eventually recorded “The Wallflower” with Peaches and it became a hit. By February of 1955, the Hot Rhythm & Blues Tracks put it at number one. James had her first taste of stardom, and she was ready for more. What she probably didn’t see coming was when superstar Little Richard took notice of her and her group Peaches.
When James heard that Little Richard was interested, she decided to give herself a makeover.
At this point in her career, James wanted to change her look. She said she’d always been a tomboy, but she knew deep down that this wouldn't work for the music world. So, she decided to be a “glamor girl”. She donned high heels, rhinestone earrings, and even a fishtail gown. She may have been a teenager, but she looked like someone much older.
James was about to take her new gussied-up look on the road—and there was sure to be trouble.
Little Richard would go on to get the title the Architect of Rock and Roll, but at this point, he was just a very popular musician. He’d heard Peaches perform and he wanted them for his national tour. They set out in 1956 and played all over the United States. This was a dream come true for James, but something closer to a nightmare happened while she was on tour.
Being on tour often meant driving from one gig to another in a car. James was in Texas in a car full of men, when they became lost. When the driver pulled over to ask an officer for directions, it became a dangerous situation. The officer looked into the car and saw what he thought was a white girl in a car full of black men. This was Texas in the 50s—so he decided to make a big deal about it.
The problem was that James’ skin was so light, the officer thought she was white. Not only was the officer not used to seeing this situation, it was actually against the law in Texas. The officer had to repeatedly ask James if she was Black or white—and not in such nice terms. Finally, James told the officer the truth, and they were free to go. Apparently, a Black girl alone in a car full of men was fine.
James got out of this predicament unscathed: but bad things were happening back at home as well.
Back in those days, it was common for white artists to “borrow” songs from Black musicians and make them popular to a white audience. Georgia Gibbs was one star who had built a career on crossover hits. Gibbs took "The Wallflower”, renamed it “Dance With Me, Henry”, and made it into a huge hit. In fact, it topped the Billboard Hot 100 that year.
Clearly, James was full of talent: and it seemed everyone wanted a piece of it.
Next, James pulled a Beyonce—or a Diana Ross for that matter—and walked away from her group Peaches and went solo. She soon had her own hit with “Good Rockin’ Daddy”. The next hit, however, didn't come so easily. Soon, James was likely regretting her decision to go out on her own. In a desperate move, she decided to leave Modern Records and join Chess Records. The move quickly paid off.
While with Chess Records, James had a string of hits: she also got a man.
While touring with Little Richard, James occasionally performed alongside The Moonglows. Now the Moonglows’ founder, Harvey Fuqua, was also with Chess Records. James and Fuqua sang a couple of duets and the chemistry was obvious: Soon, James had her first serious boyfriend—at least, that's what she claimed. But was this actually James’ first relationship? Some of her past acquaintances say no.
James toured with Bobby Murray for more than 20 years, and he has something different to say about James’ first boyfriend. He swears that when James was just 16 years old, she dated musician BB King, who would’ve been 29 at the time. If this just sounds like idle gossip, consider this. A few years later, King released a single called “Sweet Sixteen”. Even James herself said that she thought the song was about her.
Next, James was about to go from one king to another.
While she was hanging around with BB King, James met a future king: Elvis Presley. As it turned out, the 19-year-old Presley was a huge fan of BB King’s. Presley also impressed James—and not just his singing talent. James often commented on his good manners. Eventually, James teamed up and performed with the future King of Rock and Roll just outside Memphis, Tennessee.
James seemed to always be at the center of everything happening in music. She still, however, hadn’t made an album yet.
James had two hit singles doing duets with Fuqua, and then it was time to once again strike out on her own. What followed was 1960’s “All I Could Do Was Cry,” which hit the number two spot on the R&B charts. Leonard Chess—of Chess Records—saw something in James. He thought she could cross over from R&B to pop. His idea to make this happen was to bring in string instruments. The result was “My Dearest Darling”, which hit the number five spot.
James's singles clearly had the juice. It was now time for her to make her debut album.
James’ first album was At Last! The response didn’t quite match Chess Records’ prediction but, over time, critics have come to see it as hugely significant. In fact, AllMusic gave it five stars out of five, and Rolling Stone eventually put it at spot number 191 for their top 500 greatest albums of all time. The album also contained what many would later see as James's signature song: “At Last”.
But if you think James was getting rich with all this, you don’t know record companies.
In all, James worked for Chess records for 14 years, and they manipulated her all that time. Sadly, the only money she saw from Chess over those years was a meager $10,000. Instead of paying what their artists actually deserved, Chess records gave them Cadillacs. That’s actually where the title of the 2008 film Cadillac Records took its name. Most of the money she earned came from her performing live.
However, maybe it was a good thing that she didn’t get all the money. If she did, she’d probably be using it for a very destructive purpose.
James continued to record and perform throughout the 1960s. She added a gospel sound to her repertoire, but not everything was godly in her life. Like a lot of musicians at this time she had a drug problem—and it was a costly one. James’ need for her drug of choice cost her more than she was making. This led her to do some pretty horrible things.
At one point in her career, James lost the need to hide her addiction. At one concert, members of the audience could easily see bandages on her arms when she was on stage. This could only mean one thing: the bandages covered the scars from where she had been injecting. It seemed that James didn’t care who knew her dirty little secrets anymore.
James needed someone to give her guidance—and a famous person was about to provide it.
At one point in her life, James got a chance to meet the woman who her mother thought was the queen of jazz sophistication: Billie Holiday. Holliday, who had her own addiction issues, saw James and knew where her career was heading. She told James flat out: Don’t get involved in drinking and partying and staying out late. Sadly, James didn’t listen to Holiday—not even a little bit.
James’ addiction made her do terrible things; things like taking money from friends, making prescription forgeries, and even selling her body on occasion. Eventually, in 1966, the law caught up with her, and she was put on probation. Her fine for writing a bad check was $500. She later ignored her probation and had to spend a week and a half in prison.
Yet during this sad time in her life, she surprisingly sparked a new romance.
After making her first disco song, ”In The Basement '', James headed to Alabama. While there, she recorded “Tell Mama” and its b-side “I’d Rather Go Blind”. She wrote the song with Ellington Jordan, a prisoner she’d met, and decided not to have her name as the co-writer. Her idea was that this would save her money for herself—and keep it from the tax man. At the time, she was dating a guy named Billy Foster, so she wrote down his name as the co-writer. Foster will go down in history as the writer of this song—even though he didn’t do a thing.
In 1968, James shared more than a song with Foster: They had a child and named him Donto.
Back in those days, there were a lot more laws about what was right and wrong when it came to dating. One such rule was that a man and a woman could only share a hotel room if they were husband and wife. When officers found out James was in a room with a man, they hauled her into the station. Believe it or not, at this time this was a chargeable offense, and they threw the book at James.
In 1969, James was once again in rehab for her addiction, and she met Artis Mills, who was also an addict. The saintly Mills didn’t mind becoming a replacement dad to Donto, even though he wasn’t the biological father. Like her mother, James didn’t see the importance of keeping fathers involved in her children’s lives. Mills was obviously deeply in love with James—and later, he would pay for it dearly.
James continued to perform and record during this problematic decade of her life. In 1969, however, she received some horrible news. Leonard Chess, the man who had hired her at Chess Records—and scammed her—had suddenly passed due to a heart attack. Chess was only 52 when this happened and the shock of it devastated James.
The 60s were about to become the 70s: What would this mean for Etta James?
The 1970s may have been a brand new decade, but James was having the same old problems. In 1973, officers took her and her husband in for possession and in 1974, the court sent her to a drug treatment facility. Doctors there treated her with methadone—which she also became addicted to. Compared to her husband, however, she got off lightly.
Mills ended up getting a 10-year prison sentence. Being married to James was not working out in his favor.
James eventually found her way to the Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital, where she spent 17 months in care. At the hospital, she said that almost all of the other patients were white kids. One day in the common area some rock music was playing and a Rod Stewart song came on. It turned out that the song was a cover of James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind”. When the other patients heard that she had written it, they gained a new respect for their psych ward inmate.
Besides this one fond memory, her time at Tarzana remained a low point in her life.
Luckily, the only direction she could go after such a low was up. While still in the psych ward, James received a mysterious letter. It said it was from none other than The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards—who also knew a thing or two about addiction. What would Richards want with her? In the letter he made her an offer: if you can stay clean, you can tour with the Stones. If that wasn't a reason to fight addiction, I don’t know what is.
In 1976, Richards followed through on his promise to James. James was now a much heavier girl than before, but it didn’t stop her from rocking with the Stones. The truth was that neither she—nor Richards for the matter—were free of drug use. Following working with The Rolling Stones, James stopped recording and spent almost 10 years dealing with her addiction issues.
Her husband was still in prison serving time, so James began a relationship with Sam Dennis, who was an ex-user who had become a therapist. In 1976, they had a son: Sametto.
As James got her own life back on track, she was keeping an eye on Janis Joplin’s career. In James’ mind, Joplin was building a huge fan base based on James’ own singing style. To remedy this she did something drastic: she went to Joplin’s producer in an effort to take back her own style. With Joplin’s producer, she made two albums: Etta James and Come a Little Closer.
While she was dealing with her issues, James still found the time and energy to perform—and sometimes in very unlikely places. For example, she did two appearances as a guest at Grateful Dead concerts. In 1984, she performed at the opening ceremony of something rather sporty: the 1984 Summer Olympics. I guess it's safe to assume she got to skip the usually mandatory drug testing.
Next up for James? Meeting the man she’d waited a lifetime to meet.
In 1987, James had a random encounter with billiard player Minnesota Fats. Now remember, James’ mother had told young James that Fats was her biological father. James must have been over the moon to meet him. Of course, she immediately told Fats that she believed he was her father. What James later said about his reply is this: he never confirmed it or denied it. I guess that’s as close as we’ll get to a yes.
Things were looking good for James—and it was just about to get even better.
By the end of the 1980s, James seemed to have dealt with her issues and was ready to record for the first time in almost a decade. She signed up with Island Records and in 1988 made “Seven Year Itch” which referred to her time of not having a contract with a record label. Two years later she made yet another album with Island Records: “Stickin’ To My Guns”. Clearly, this was a triumphant comeback for James.
In 1993, even though she did mostly R&B, James got a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. While she said that it was an honor, she had a quibble with the award. She questioned who decided these things. Who decided who was rock and roll and who was jazz? And who decided who was important or not? Even when she was receiving an honor, James was prickly—and that’s how her fans liked her.
With her next album, she was about to give those same fans a shock.
In 1993, James—with Private Music Records—made Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday. This was new for James. She’d always been a R&B star who also did rock and soul. Now, she was heading into jazz. She later said that until this time in her life, she’d thought of jazz as being very disciplined, in fact, a little too disciplined. She said that when she made Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday, she was now mature enough to do it. Incidentally, the name of the album was a reference to her mother. She was the “mystery lady” who loved Billie Holiday.
Later, James would have another chance to bring her mother back into her life.
In 2001, James did an album of jazz standards. Remember, this was the kind of music James’ mother had wanted James to sing way back when. To commemorate this occasion, James did something hugely sentimental: She asked her mother to sing one of the songs. Hawkins sang the title track, “Blue Gardenia”. It wasn’t a moment too soon, either, as Hawkins passed less than a year later.
One of James’ biggest fans was pop diva Christina Aguilera, who grew up listening to James’ music. When Aguilera did a cover of James’ signature song “At Last”, Aguilera made sure she told anyone who would listen, that the song really belonged to James. She wanted to make sure people knew who James was and help her career out in any way she could.
Not all the divas, however, were friends with James.
In 2009, super diva Beyonce had an amazing offer. She could sing at the inaugural ball for America’s first Black President: Barack Obama. Beyonce decided to sing “At Last” because she had just played James in the film Cadillac Records. When James found out about Beyonce’s music choice, she went ballistic and, in true James style, she didn’t hold back. She let loose a rant where she said she “couldn’t stand Beyonce” and even threatened to do her bodily harm. James’ son later said that James’ words against Beyonce had a predictable cause: “drug-induced dementia”. I think a more likely reason was that James was just being James.
Sadly, there wasn’t much more time for James to be James.
By January 2010, James was in poor health. She went into the hospital for an infection, but then her son revealed the really bad news: his mother had dementia. The next year she got an even worse diagnosis: James had leukemia. Believe it or not, James was still at this time married to Artis Mills—the man she’d married back in 1969. He’d been with her through it all. Because James was unable to care for herself, Mills got the job as sole conservator.
Five days before her 74th birthday—on January 20, 2012—James passed. Eight days later there was a funeral and it was a big deal. Stevie Wonder performed, then Christina Aguilera stunned the audience with her stirring rendition of James’ song “At Last”. It looks like Beyonce, however, kept her distance. They laid James to rest in Inglewood Park Cemetery in LA.
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