The great R&B singer explains why she decided to dedicate her new album to the late superstar. Leela James has the same surname as the late, great blues singer Etta James. James' raw and husky voice earned her the moniker "Baby Etta" as a young kid. But that isn't the only thing they have in common. Both women had successful solo careers after joining groups, then left those groups to pursue a solo career. In fact, Leela even admits she's been listening to some of Etta's old albums lately.
Leela was born in 1951 in New York City. She began singing in church at a very young age and eventually landed a job with a local group called The Delrons. After about a year, she was offered a contract by another New York-based group called The Temptations. Leela remembers being really scared when she first joined the group because she knew all the songs already and wasn't sure how well she would do singing others' lyrics over the top of their own recordings.
But she must have done something right because she kept getting offered more and more gigs with the group. By 1970, Leela had become one of the only female lead singers in popular music along with Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, and Grace Slick. Her unique style drew many fans from all across America who didn't necessarily know who the Temptations were before they started watching them on TV.
Etta James is a Grammy Award-winning vocalist best known for her hits "I'd Rather Go Blind" and "At Last." She has been called "the Queen of Soul Music," and her style was an early influence on Aretha Franklin.
James was born in Tarboro, North Carolina, on July 4, 1938. Her father was an auto mechanic who also played guitar; her mother was a church organist. When she was five years old, the family moved to Detroit, where her father found work as a mechanic at Ford Motor Company. They lived in poverty, with her parents forcing Etta to help out by selling newspapers on the street when she was seven years old.
She started singing in church groups and school events from an early age. By the time she was 12 years old, she was working as a maid to pay for college. She attended Crozer School for Girls and then desegregated Wayne State University, but she dropped out after two months to pursue a musical career.
Her first hit song was "Tell Me Why", which reached number one on the R&B chart in 1959. After that success, other songs followed, such as "Something Must Have Changed", "I Want To Be Happy", and "Love Me Or Leave Me".
Etta James' music has influenced soul and rock vocalist Janis Joplin, who grew up listening to James live. Beyonce and other R&B and mainstream vocalists were influenced by James. Beyonce stated that her music had "greater confidence" after portraying Etta James in the 2008 film Cadillac Records.
Other artists who have cited Etta James as an influence include Amy Winehouse, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Gwen Stefani, Sheryl Crow, and Christina Aguilera.
In addition to singing, James played piano and guitar. She also wrote many of her own songs.
Her first hit was "Something Ain't Right With My Baby", which she recorded with Sam Cooke. After moving to Philadelphia, James continued to have success with songs like "At Last", "I Want To Say I Love You", and "All I Can Do". In 1969, she released an album titled After Hours...: Blues After Dark that included covers of songs by Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Big Joe Williams. It was during this time that she began using heroin. Her last studio album before her death in 1978 was called Just Tryin' To Live. It included the single "I Need Someone New".
James died at the age of 44 in a car crash in Memphis. She was on her way to a recording session when the car she was in was hit by a truck.