Jamesetta Hawkins was born on January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles, California.
At five years of age, James began singing in her church choir. Her family moved to San Francisco, California, when whe was twelve. When she was 15, bandleader Johnny Otis took her to Los Angeles to record for Modern Records. Her first single, "The Wallflower," reached the top of the R&B charts. Her later recordings for Modern didn't do as well and, in 1960, she signed with the Chess label. She remained with Chess until 1975.
James continues to record and tour and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001.