Jamesetta Hawkins was born to a 14 year-old mother in South Los Angeles in 1938. She never knew the identity of her father. She was placed in a foster home and decades later acknowledged that her biological mother made the best possible decision for her. James said in a 1994 interview on NPR's Fresh Air, "She was just a child. What would she have done with me? Would I have been singing today? Would I have been anything, you know?"
Her career began in San Francisco when she was 16 years old and she auditioned for bandleader Johnny Otis, considered by many to be the Grandfather of Rhythm and Blues. Otis invited James and her do-wop group to travel to Los Angeles to make a recording if she could provide him with a signed letter from her mother granting her permission. James wrote the note herself and went to Los Angeles where she recorded "Roll with Me, Henry" and joined Otis's traveling R&B review. Ironically, Otis died just three days before James, at the age of 90.
In 1960, James became the first lady of Chess Records, the blues record label started in Chicago by Leonard Chess. Many of James's biggest hits came from her days at Chess, including "All I Could Do Was Cry" and the album At Last, whose title track became James's signature song. In 2009, Beyoncé Knowles sang "At Last" at the inaugural ball for President Barack Obama, prompting James to say that she hated both Knowles and her version of the song. Later, James recanted and said she was just kidding, but did acknowledge that she was hurt to not be invited to sing the song herself. Knowles portrayed James in the 2008 movie Cadillac Records, chronicling the rise and fall of Chess.
James's career was hampered by lifelong struggles with drug abuse. She was virtually unheard from on the music scene between 1978 and 1989, when she released the album Seven Year Itch for Island Records. She said of her attempts to beat her addiction to drugs, "I had given it up many a time." While in rehab in the mid-1970s, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones wrote her a letter, promising her a spot as their opening act when she was ready. A grateful James toured with the legendary rock band in 1978 and performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival that year.
In 1993, James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 1994, James won her first Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance for her tribute album Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday. She received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003 and the following year, Rolling Stone named James to its list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. James won another Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album for Let's Roll, released in 2005. It was James' final recording.
In 2008, James was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, which her son claimed was the reason she criticized Beyoncé. She continued to battle health issues and in 2011 she was diagnosed with leukemia and dementia. Etta James died on January 20, 2012 and Stevie Wonder and Christina Aguilera both performed tributes to her at her funeral. The Reverend Al Sharpton presided over the service and read a note from President Obama, who said that James would be remembered for her voice and music that transcended genres.