Etta James

Etta James

“I sing the songs that people need to hear”

- Etta James


Illustration by Elizabeth Graeber

Illustration by Elizabeth Graeber

Jamesetta Hawkins, known to the world as Etta James, was born in Los Angeles on January 25, 1938. Her mother, Dorothy Hawkins was only 14 at the time of her birth and the identity of her father was unknown. Because her mother was too young to manage a child, Jamesetta was placed in foster care where she stayed for most of her young life.

By age 5, Jamesetta was known as a gospel prodigy, gaining fame by performing in her church and on the radio. She began formal music training with her choir director, James Earl Hines, whose teaching tactics often came in the form of physical abuse. Haines was known for punching her in the chest, which trained her to sing from her gut. The physical abuse she received during her formative year caused her to develop an unusually deep voice for a girl her age and made her a popular singing attraction. Her foster parents, Sarge and Lu James, tried to exploit her talents and sought out compensation from the church. Sarge was also abusive and would force her with beatings to sing for his friends. The traumatic experiences she received as a child affected Jamesetta for the rest of her life and made it hard for her to perform on demand.

In 1950, Jamesetta reunited with her birth mother who she always knew as ‘the mystery lady’. Her mother supported her talents and the two moved to the Fillmore District in San Francisco. Etta began listening to doo-wap, which led her to form a girl group called the Creolettes. Soon after, she was introduced to Johnny Otis, a well known band leader who took the group under his wing and helped them land a deal with Modern Records. It was during this time that Jamesetta shortened her name to Etta James and the Creolettes became known as the Peaches.

Etta signed with Chess Records in 1960 after leaving the Peaches for a solo career. Her debut studio album, At Last!, was released later that year and was noted for its variations of jazz, blues, and doo-wap. Her second album, Second Time Around, incorporated elements of gospel and pop. Her musical style continued to change throughout her career and her voice became deeper and more soulful. She has received widespread recognition for her music and is praised for blurring the lines between musical genres. She is considered one of the most influential musicians of all time.



The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation keeps music alive in our schools by providing durable, high-quality musical instruments to deserving, under-funded music programs nationwide. By increasing the school’s inventory of quality, playable instruments, music teachers are given the tools they need to deliver a quality music education to students who want to learn, re-energize their program, attract new students and instill a sense of pride and worth for the students and the entire school. In collaboration with committed school districts, the Foundation’s investments are strategically placed as part of a K–12 district-wide plan to achieve positive and lasting results. 

Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm

Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson