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.
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