Jackson was born in 1923 in Pontotoc, Mississippi. The daughter of a violinist, Jackson learned to play several instruments as a child, including guitar, piano, harmonica, mandolin, and banjo. She recalled in an interview given to the Christian Science Monitor in 1991 that she had always been told growing up that “girls don’t play guitar”—but she did.
Wanda Lavonne Jackson was born in Maud, Oklahoma, in 1937, and spent her childhood in Oklahoma and California. She recalls that her father, himself an amateur musician, gave her her first guitar when she was about six and then later—when she showed a love for pop music and the “girl singers” of the time—he provided her with a piano and lessons. Her first public performances were for a program on KLPR AM radio out of Oklahoma City, where local disc jockey “Cousin” Jay Davis would showcase local talent.
Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938. James’s mother was still a high school student when she was born, and she was largely raised by an aunt and then by a foster family. At five years old, she began singing at the St. Paul Baptist Church, famous for its Echoes of Eden gospel choir. She began taking voice lessons from the choirmaster, James Earle Hines, and piano lessons from his wife. “In the forties,” writes James in her autobiography, “word got out that a girlchild in the St. Paul Baptist could sing like a full-grown woman, with grown-up feelings and strength. Joe Adams’s radio broadcasts helped spread the news, and it didn’t take long before I was famous.”