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Etta James was a powerful, dynamic vocalist who found fame in her teens, nearly lost it all, and returned to stardom on the back of her formidable talent.

Jamesetta Hawkins was born in 1938 in Los Angeles to a teen mother. James’ childhood wasn’t perfect as she was raised by foster parents, but she received vocal training early and became a gospel prodigy. She was known for having a big voice that didn’t seem to fit her 5-foot-3 frame.

After connecting with bandleader Johnny Otis, James began her musical career in 1954, gaining her first hit with “The Wallflower” along with Otis’ band. She formed a girl group called The Peaches, which was derived from her nickname Miss Peaches, but she went solo shortly after and released a number of hits such as “Good Rockin Daddy” among others.

As the ’60s rolled around, James and her then boyfriend, musician Henry Fuqua worked together closely, and she went on to drop tracks such as “At Last” and “Trust In Me” which made her a star.

Modern Records Portrait

Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

James’ true gift was her ability to sing across the genres of R&B, blues, rock, and jazz. Her 1973 “Ella” album is one of the best examples by way of its rock and blues influences.

Over the course of her career, James struggled with heroin addiction was a victim of physical abuse which had a negative impact on her career. However, her will to succeed and that voice triumphed over the issues that plagued her. Although she has been nominated for a Grammy Award several times, James didn’t win the first of her six trophies until 1995 for Best Jazz Vocal Performance from the album Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday.

Among James’ accolades, she was a 1993 inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and was a 2001 inductee into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Singer Beyoncè portrayed James in the 2008 movie Cadillac Records.

James passed in 2012. Singer Christina Aguilera, who counted James as and inspiration, sang at her funeral.

Tom Joyner’s Flashback: On This Day Featuring Etta James  was originally published on