Etta James

Etta James: Black Woman Creative Genius

Many say that there is a very thin line between insanity and genius. The question is: “where does the source of the insanity come from?” Are people just born with these capabilities? Or does someone’s life circumstances drive them to the thin line between insanity and creative genius? Supposedly, some of the smartest minds in the world are the most creative. Regardless of the source, those with renowned musical capabilities are said to be among this group of people. The most talented people who we know in the music industry could be the most tortured. However, these geniuses know how to turn their problems into art as they express their emotions through music. The Late renowned Singer,widely known as Etta James, is no exception to this notion. Despite her disheartening upbringing, Etta James has won some of the highest awards that a musician can win for her musical capabilities. Etta James’ career lasted 57 year and her legacy still continues after her death because she was able to transmute her emotions from her traumatizing upbringing into her art and create award-winning musical work; although she also copped with the trauma from her childhood with substance abuse. 


Etta James or Jamesetta Hawkins started from very humble beginnings. She was born January 25, 1938 to a fourteen year old woman, who also worked as an escort. From an early age, her mother was not very much a part of her life. So, James was raised by different foster families. Although James’ circumstances were disheartening, she was able to learn a skill from one of her foster families that would bring her fame and success in the future. As a child, James lived with James Earle Hines, a musical director of the Echoes of Eden choir at the St. Paul Baptist Church, and his wife.  She referred to them as “Sarge” and “Mama Lu”. Hines taught the young girl how to sing, while abusing her during practice and at home. The abuse would later affect James’ ability to sing on command. After Hines’ wife died in 1950, James and her mother moved to San Francisco. There James formed a Doo-Wop inspired girl band named to the Creolettes. During her time as a member of the Creolettes, James was given the opportunity to meet a famous musician by the name of Johnny Otis. Otis took the group under his wing and reformed them by changing their group name to “Peaches’. He was the reason James made her stage name Etta James. The girl group quickly rose to fame under Otis’ apprenticeship and the “Peaches” had a song that placed number one on the Hot Rhythm & Blues Tracks chart. However in 1960 James left her group and her record company and signed to Chess Records as a solo artist. Shortly after doing so James released her first hit single as a solo artist that is titled “All I could do was cry”. The song placed second on the R&B Hits chart.   


During her career as a solo career with Chess Records,James made songs that charted at the top of the R&B charts for Decades. However, her work includes sounds from various different genres that include: R&B, Blues, Jazz, Pop, Rock, Funk, and Gospel. James’ wide range of vocal capabilities enabled her to have a diverse musical repertoire. On top of having songs that placed on the R & B Charts for multiple decades, she has also had music that charted on Billboard Hot 100. Some of her music that charted on the R&B charts were crossover hits because some songs had gospel elements. She also has music that has become classics for the Blues genre. Not only was James nominated for a Grammy for her collaboration with Rock artists such as Janis Joplin and the band Steppenwolf, she was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. In 2001, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in the same year. James also has a jazz album and a Blues album that actually both won a Grammy. She was also awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. In 2004, Rolling Stone acclaimed James to be number 62 on their 100 Greatest Artist of All Time chart. However her resume does not only include music. She has worked with Coca-Cola on commercials and even published an autobiography. At the end of Etta James’ live a movie was made that featured her career and relationship to her the owner of Chess Records called “Cadillac Records.” 


Although Etta James had a long and fruitful career, her journey through life was not an easy one. During her career, James battled with substance abuse for many decades. Her heroin addiction was the reason she was continuously admitted to rehabilitation facilities through court order. As a way to support her substance abuse, James stole money from her friends, impersonated doctors by writing fake prescriptions, and wrote bad checks. She was only charged with writing bad checks and was placed on probation. However, due to a violation of the terms of her probation, James served ten days in prison. The second time James was arrested for the possession of heroin she was with her husband, Artis Mills. He took responsibility for the charges and served a ten year prison sentence. However, James would continue to abuse substances throughout the rest of her life. Many speculate that James struggled with substance abuse as a way to cope with the unresolved trauma from her childhood. James never had a real stable family unit. Music became an escape for her and a way to release her emotions. That is why her music was able to touch so many people across various different genres. Etta James was able to transmute some of the emotions from her traumatizing upbringing and turn it into art. 

Although Etta James helped open doors for other Black female artists to be able to branch out into different genres of music and experiment with sound, Etta James’ journey through life  is a testimony that beautiful art can be a result of pain and suffering. Despite her circumstances, Etta James used her talent to the best of her capabilities and turned her sorrow into songs that touch many people. As a result, her music career lasted for 57 years, from the age of 15 to her death in 2012. Etta James’ story proves that creative genius can come from a dark place. Thankfully, Jamesetta Hawkins lived a long life and had a family of her own. Her story shows other Black women that they can do anything they put their mind to and accomplish their biggest dreams. She is a representation we are more than their circumstances. 



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