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Etta James, the sassy R&B and blues singer whose lush 1961 rendition of the ballad “At Last” has become a slow-dance staple at wedding celebrations everywhere, died Friday at Riverside Community Hospital. She was 73.
Her long-time friend and manager, Lupe DeLeon, confirmed the news to CNN. She would have turned 74 on Wednesday.
The Riverside Press-Telegram reported Dec. 15 that the Grammy Award winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was terminally ill after her live-in doctor two weeks earlier declared her leukemia incurable.
James was diagnosed in 2009 with Alzheimer’s disease, was hospitalized in 2010 because of a dangerous staph infection and hospitalized again in May with a blood infection. Other health problems were self-inflicted: James had a decade-long addiction to heroin that frequently put her in psychiatric hospitals for weeks at a time.
The singer, whose other hits include “All I Could Do Is Cry,” “Sunday Kind of Love,” “Pushover,” “Tell Mama” and a version of Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” moved among blues, R&B, gospel, jazz and rock ’n’ roll during her six-decade career, influencing such artists as Janis Joplin, Christina Aguilera, Adele and Beyonce Knowles, who portrayed James in the 2008 film Cadillac Records and serenaded first couple Barack and Michelle Obama with the song “At Last” on election night of that same year.
“She can be so raucous and down one song and then break your heart with her subtlety and finesse the next,” Bonnie Raitt once told Rolling Stone magazine, which three years ago ranked James No. 22 on its list of the 100 top singers of all time. “As raw as Etta is, there’s a great intelligence and wisdom in her singing.”
Neil Portnow, president and CEO of the Recording Academy, said James’ music “knew no boundaries” and her voice “will echo around the world for generations to come.”
Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles on Jan. 25, 1938 — she never knew her father but reportedly speculated he was the famed pool player Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone — James was raised in a foster home. She started vocal training at age 5 at a Baptist church, and at 16 she formed a doo-wop group called the Peaches, soon to be discovered in San Francisco by singer and talent scout Johnny Otis (he died Tuesday at age 90). With his guidance, their single “The Wallflower” (also known as “Roll With Me, Henry”) reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1955.
In 1960, James signed with Chess Records, was mentored by singer-producer Harvey Fuqua and had her solo breakthrough with the bluesy “All I Could Do Is Cry,” which peaked at No. 2 on the R&B chart that year. The next year, Chess released the album At Last!, which featured what would become her signature song and her takes on such standards as Lena Horne’s “Stormy Weather.”
Her song “At Last” — first performed by the Glenn Miller Orchestra in the 1942 film Orchestra Wives — also reached No. 2 on the R&B chart and No. 47 on the Billboard Hot 100. James had another hit that year with “Trust in Me” as well as another studio album, The Second Time Around, which contained her top 15 R&B hit “Fool That I Am.”
James dyed her hair platinum blonde and over the next few years scored with such songs as “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” “Stop the Wedding,” “Pushover,” “Baby What You Want Me to Do” and “Loving You More Every Day,” but her career stalled as she was gripped by heroin. Later, she was sentenced to jail for writing bad checks and spent time in the ’80s at the Betty Ford Center in another personal battle, this one with painkillers.
The Rolling Stones aided one of her comebacks when they had her open for them during a 1978 tour.
In more recent times, James reunited with producer Jerry Wexler for three albums, collaborated with rap artist Def Jef for the 1989 hip-hop dance classic “Droppin Rhymes on Drums” and went in a jazz direction with a tribute album, 1993’s Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday, which earned her a jazz Grammy. In 1995, James turned to soul with the album Time After Time.
James, who received a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2003, continued to play clubs and in 2009 appeared on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, singing “At Last.” November saw the release of her final album, The Dreamer, with touches of soul, blues, R&B, rock and country all on display. Also this year, the rapper Flo Rida sampled James’ “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” on his song “Good Feeling.”
Her son, Donto James, and her husband of 42 years, Artis Mills, are in a court battle over her $1 million estate. On Dec. 20, a Riverside County judge ruled that Mills would remain as conservator. The singer is survived by another son, Sametto.
Watch James singing her signature song, “At Last,” below:
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