Early on, she toured with Johnny Guitar Watson, the Texas singer, songwriter and guitarist, in an association that figured prominently in her approach to music for the rest of her life.
She also fell under the positive and negative influences of musicians she revered, such as Billie Holiday, as well as some with whom she crossed paths on the road, including Ray Charles and Chet Baker, all of whom struggled with addiction.
"All of my role models at that time, the ones I looked up to most, were heroin addicts," she told The Times in 1993. "I think subconsciously I thought that was a cool thing."
In the mid-1970s, after getting caught writing bad checks to support her drug habit, James was offered a choice between prison or rehab. She chose the latter and kicked heroin, but she started using cocaine a few years later. A spiritual epiphany led her to give up cocaine and alcohol, and in the 1980s she began a personal and professional renaissance, reestablishing her credibility in the music world.
She coaxed esteemed R&B producer Jerry Wexler, who had been pivotal in the careers of Aretha Franklin, Ruth Brown, Otis Redding and many others, out of retirement to oversee her 1992 album "The Right Time."
At the time, Wexler said, "I've never done anything better, and I've done a lot of records."
In 1994, James saluted Holiday with an album of jazz standards called "Mystery Lady," which yielded the first Grammy Award of her career, for jazz vocal performance. She collected two more Grammys: for the 2003 contemporary blues album "Let's Roll," and 2004's "Blues to the Bone," named best traditional blues album.
Those works became family affairs when she enlisted her two sons as co-producers. The family moved to Riverside in the 1980s because James said she had had enough of gang violence and other troubles in South Los Angeles. She lived in a simple ranch-style home.
In addition to her two sons, James is survived by Artis Mills, her husband of 42 years;and several grandchildren.
Her sons were unaware of the scope of their mother's fame until seeing her perform at the 1983 Grammys. Donto, then a young teen, was sitting next to members of rap group Run-DMC, and they went wild when James took the stage.
"That's when I realized my mother was truly a star," he said.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Phil Willon contributed to this report.