Writer Paul Culshaw remembers the legendary Etta James, who died earlier this year.

It was the 20th January 2012 when the news hit that Etta James was dead. I was so sad. The voice of Etta James was filled with Gospel, Jazz, Soul and Blues. She had bridged the gap between Rhythm ‘n’ Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll and won various awards including 6 Grammy and an amazing 17 Blues Music Awards. Etta was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and naturally into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001. Rolling Stone ranked her at number 22 on their list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and number 62 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists.

Etta James was sassy, suggestive and she always had big, big attitude on stage – but above all she had style!


Her story begins in Los Angeles, California, where on 25th January 1938, 14 year-old Dorothy Hawkins gave birth to baby Jamesetta Hawkins. The baby’s daddy was never known but he is thought to have been white. Dorothy was often absent  from Jamesette’s life due to carrying on with various men, and Etta would eventually call her mother “The Mystery Lady”.

At just five she received professional vocal training from James Earle Hines who was musical director for the Echoes of Eden choir at the St Paul Baptist Church. Jamesetta sang at the church too and she became a regular attraction. Sadly,  at home things weren’t well. During early morning drunken poker games Jamesetta used to get dragged from her bed and beaten and forced to sing.

She had a problem with wetting the bed and her carer Sarge would get her up, soaked in her own urine, and force her to sing. This badly traumatised Jamesetta and she would never allow herself to be forced to sing again.

In 1950 one caregiver, Mama Lu, died so along with her mom Etta  moved to the Fillmore district of San Francisco.  Jamesetta began to really listen to and love the sound of vocal groups, and she became inspired by the Doo-wop sound. Jamesetta was only 14 but she was so highly inspired by what she heard, that she put together an all-girl group called the Creolettes.

The great Johnny Otis soon watched them perform and took them under his wing. He helped to get them signed to Modern Records. The Creolettes became the Peaches (Etta is pictured with them on the right) and Jamesetta decided to reverse her name to become Etta James.

Soon Etta James and the Peaches recorded ‘Dance With Me Henry’ in 1954 but it was not released until early 1955. The song was originally called ‘Roll With Me Henry’ which was considered too coarse for the public’s delicate ears so the lyrics were changed. It was a truly low down dirty Rock’n’Roll number with fire in its belly!

It hit number 2 on the R&B chart. On the strength of this release, Etta and the girls opened the show on Little Richard’s national tour. Whilst on this tour, as always happened, a white cover version of ‘Dnace With Me Henry’ by Georgia Gibb quickly followed which landed at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, much to Etta’s anger.

To be continued.