Ernestine Anderson was born in Houston, Texas, on November 11, 1928, into a musical family, and she grew up listening to the blues. As a child she joined her father and grandmother singing gospel in the local church. At the age of twelve she joined trumpeter Russel Jacquet to sing in his big band.
She was 18 when she went on tour with the Johnny Otis Band, and in 1952 with Lionel Hampton’s Orchestra. After that she decided she wanted to be a professional singer, and recorded with Quincy Jones in 1952 and 1953.