'She was one of the greatest vocalists of our time': Beyonce pays tribute to 'fearless' Etta James after soul legend dies at 73
James received her first professional vocal training at the age of five from James Earle Hines, musical director of the Echoes of Eden choir, at the St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles. She became a popular singing attraction at the church, and Sarge tried to pressure the church into paying him money for her singing, but they refused. During drunken poker games at home, he would wake James up in the early hours of the morning and force her through beatings to sing for his friends. As she was a bed-wetter, and often soaked with her own urine on these occasions, the trauma of being forced to sing meant she had a life-long reluctance to sing on demand.
In 1950 Mama Lu died, and James' real mother took her to the Fillmore district in San Francisco. Within a couple of years, James began listening to doo-wop and was inspired to form a girl group, called the Creolettes (due to the members' light skinned complexions). The 14-year-old girls met musician Johnny Otis. Stories on how they met vary including Otis' version in which James had come to his hotel after one of his performances in the city and persuaded him to audition her. Another story came that Otis spotted the group performing at a Los Angeles nightclub and sought them to record his "answer song" to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie". Nonetheless, Otis took the group under his wing, helping them sign to Modern Records and changing their name from the Creolettes to the Peaches and gave the singer her stage name reversing Jamesetta into Etta James. James recorded the version, which she was allowed to co-author, in 1954, and the song was released in early 1955 as "Dance with Me, Henry". Originally the name of the song was "Roll With Me, Henry" but was changed to avoid censorship due to the subtle title. In February of that year, the song reached number one on the Hot Rhythm & Blues Tracks chart. Its success gave the group an opening spot on Little Richard's national tour.
While on tour with Richard, pop singer Georgia Gibbs recorded her version of James' song, which was released under the title "The Wallflower", and became a crossover hit, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100, which angered James. After leaving the Peaches, James had another R&B hit with "Good Rockin' Daddy", but struggled with follow-ups. When her contract with Modern came up in 1960, she decided to sign with Leonard Chess' namesake label, Chess Records, and shortly afterwards got involved in a relationship with singer Harvey Fuqua, founder of the doo-wop group, The Moonglows.
Bobby Murray, aka "Taters", toured with Etta James for 20 years. He wrote that James had her first hit single when she was 15 years of age and went steady with B.B. King when she was 16. Etta James believed the hit single "Sweet Sixteen" by B.B. King was about her. wiki