Iconic Angelenos in Black History: Etta James

In honor of Black History Month, join us each day from February 10th to the 19th as we celebrate Black Angelenos who have influenced culture, social justice, and progress in Los Angeles and, in some instances, the nation. Today we celebrate Etta James:


Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles to an absent drug-addicted mother and an unknown father, Etta James became a gospel prodigy at the age of 5. Reared by a series of caregivers, by age 12 she was performing on the radio and with the Echoes Eden Choir at St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles. In 1950 her biological mother moved her to Fillmore, San Francisco, where she formed the girl group the "Creolettes." James was soon brought under the wing of Johnny Otis, respected even then as "The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues." He guided James to a career which would bridge the gap between segregated blacks and whites with the power of Doo-wop, Gospel, Pop, and R&B. James led a tumultuous life off-stage, struggling with family problems and heroin-addiction for nearly twenty years. She triumphantly regained the stage in 1984 during the Olympic opening ceremonies hosted in Los Angeles. In the following decades her legacy and achievements were recognized with numerous awards and honors. She was a leader in crossover music during segregated times, with a legendary voice that has outlasted the best of singers today.

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Her signature song "At Last" was released in 1961, reaching number two on the R&B chart and number 47 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Her original song "Roll With Me Henry" (at the time a vulgar sentiment) was later re-recorded by Caucasian artist Georgie Gibbs and became a crossover hit-- one of several in the early rock era when white singers got hits by covering songs by black artists.

In 1967, James recorded with the Muscle Shoals house band in the Fame studios, resulting in the triumphant Tell Mama album, considered one of the most highly regarded soul albums of all time.

Inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1993.

In 1984, James performed at the Olympics' opening ceremonies at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

From 1989, James received over 30 awards and recognitions from eight different organizations, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

In 2003, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7080 Hollywood Boulevard, and a Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) Lifetime Achievement Award.

The Blues Foundation has nominated James for a Blues Music Award nearly every year since its founding in 1980; and she has received numerous Blues Female Artist of the Year award 14 times since 1989.

As we continue celebrating Black History Month with daily portraits of iconic Angelenos, check back for more features on other pioneering individuals and make sure to share this history with your friends and family. Click here for more portraits.




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