LOS ANGELES – Etta James, the R&B singer whose raw, passionate vocals anchored many hits and made the yearning ballad “At Last” an enduring anthem for weddings, commercials and even President Barack Obama, died Friday. She was 73.
James had been suffering from dementia and kidney problems, and was battling leukemia. In December 2011, her physician announced that her leukemia was terminal and asked for prayers for the singer. During her illness, her husband, Artis Mills, and her two sons fought bitterly over control of her $1 million estate, though a deal was later struck keeping Mills as the conservator and capping the singer’s expenses at $350,000.
James died at Riverside Community Hospital, with her husband and sons at her side, said her manager, Lupe De Leon.
“It’s a tremendous loss for her fans around the world,” he said. “She’ll be missed. A great American singer. Her music defied category.”
Boldness was as much a trademark of James, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as her platinum-dyed mane.
She scored her first hit when she was just a teenager with the suggestive “Roll With Me, Henry,” which had to be changed to “The Wallflower” in order to get airplay. Over the years, she’d notch many more, carving a niche for herself with her husky, soulful voice and her sassy attitude, which permeated her songs.
But it was her jazz-inflected rendition of “At Last” that would come to define her and make her legendary. The song, which starts with sumptuous strings before James begins to sing, was a remake of a 1941 standard. James made it her own, and her version became the new standard.
Over the decades, countless brides have used it as their song down the aisle, and it has been featured in car commercials and films like “American Pie,” But perhaps most famously, President Obama and the first lady danced to a version of “At Last” at his inauguration ball.
But the tender, sweet song belied the turmoil that James – born Jamesette Hawkins in Los Angeles – would endure for much of her life. Her mother – whom she described in her 1995 autobiography “Rage to Survive” as a scam artist, a substance abuser and unstable – was a fleeting presence in her life during her youth.
She never knew her father, although she had been told that he was the famous billiards player Minnesota Fats. When she was older, she met him and asked about the rumor. He wouldn’t confirm or deny it: as James recalled, he simply told her: “I don’t remember everything. I wish I did, but I don’t.”
Her mother would come in and out of her life, so she was raised by Lula and Jesse Rogers, who owned the rooming house her mother once lived in. The pair brought up James in the Christian faith, and even as a young girl, her voice stood out in the church choir. James would soon get solos and became so well known, she said that Hollywood stars would come to see her perform.
But she wouldn’t stay a gospel singer for long. Rhythm and blues soon lured her away from the church, and she found herself drawn to the grittiness of the music.
“My mother always wanted me to be a jazz singer, but I always wanted to be raunchy,” she recalled in her book.
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