And so they replied with the song, "Roll With Me, Henry."
When Otis heard it, he told James to get her mother's permission to accompany him to Los Angeles to make a recording. Instead, the 15-year-old singer forged her mother's name on a note claiming she was 18.
"At that time, you weren't allowed to say 'roll' because it was considered vulgar. So when Georgia Gibbs did her version, she renamed it 'Dance With Me, Henry' and it went to No. 1 on the pop charts," the singer recalled. The Gibbs song was one of several in the early rock era when white singers got hits by covering songs by black artists, often with sanitized lyrics.
After her 1955 debut, James toured with Otis' revue, sometimes earning only $10 a night. In 1959, she signed with Chicago's legendary Chess label, began cranking out the hits and going on tours with performers such as Bobby Vinton, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Everly Brothers.
"We would travel on four buses to all the big auditoriums. And we had a lot of fun," she recalled in 1987.
James recorded a string of hits in the late 1950s and '60s including "Trust In Me," ''Something's Got a Hold On Me," ''Sunday Kind of Love," ''All I Could Do Was Cry," and of course, "At Last."
"(Chess Records founder) Leonard Chess was the most aware of anyone. He went up and down the halls of Chess announcing, 'Etta's crossed over! Etta's crossed over!' I still didn't know exactly what that meant, except that maybe more white people were listening to me. The Chess brothers kept saying how I was their first soul singer, that I was taking their label out of the old Delta blues, out of rock and into the modern era. Soul was the new direction," she wrote in her autobiography. "But in my mind, I was singing old style, not new."
In 1967, she cut one of the most highly regarded soul albums of all time, "Tell Mama," an earthy fusion of rock and gospel music featuring blistering horn arrangements, funky rhythms and a churchy chorus. A song from the album, "Security," was a top 40 single in 1968.
Her professional success, however, was balanced against personal demons, namely a drug addiction.
"I was trying to be cool," she told the AP in 1995, explaining what had led her to try heroin.
"I hung out in Harlem and saw Miles Davis and all the jazz cats," she continued. "At one time, my heavy role models were all druggies. Billie Holiday sang so groovy. Is that because she's on drugs? It was in my mind as a young person. I probably thought I was a young Billie Holiday, doing whatever came with that."
She was addicted to the drug for years, beginning in 1960, and it led to a harrowing existence that included time behind bars. It sapped her singing abilities and her money, eventually, almost destroying her career.
It would take her at least two decades to beat her drug problem. Her husband, Artis Mills, even went to prison for years, taking full responsibility for drugs during an arrest even though James was culpable.
"My management was suffering. My career was in the toilet. People tried to help, but I was hell-bent on getting high," she wrote of her drug habit in 1980.
She finally quit the habit and managed herself for a while, calling up small clubs and asking them, "Have you ever heard of Etta James?" in order to get gigs. Eventually, she got regular bookings — even drawing Elizabeth Taylor as an audience member. In 1984, she was tapped to sing the national anthem at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and her career got the resurgent boost it needed, though she fought addiction again when she got hooked on painkillers in the late 1980s.
Drug addiction wasn't her only problem. She struggled with her weight, and often performed from a wheelchair as she got older and heavier. In the early 2000s, she had weight-loss surgery and shed some 200 pounds.
James performed well into her senior years, and it was "At Last" that kept bringing her the biggest ovations. The song was a perennial that never aged, and on Jan. 20, 2009, as crowds celebrated that — at last — an African-American had become president of the United States, the song played as the first couple danced.
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