Etta James’ performance of the enduring classic, At Last, was the embodiment of refined soul: Angelic-sounding strings harkened the arrival of her passionate yet measured vocals as she sang tenderly about a love finally realised after a long and patient wait.
In real life, little about James was as genteel as that song. The platinum blonde’s first hit was a saucy RB number about sex, and she was known as a hell-raiser who had tempestuous relationships with her family, her men and the music industry. Then she spent years battling a drug addiction that she admitted sapped away at her great talents.
The 73-year-old died on Friday at Riverside Community Hospital from complications of leukemia, with her husband and sons at her side, her manager, Lupe De Leon, said.
‘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.’
James’ spirit could not be contained – perhaps that’s what made her so magnetic in music; it is surely what made her so dynamic as one of RB, blues and rock ‘n’ roll’s underrated legends.
‘The bad girls … had the look that I liked,’ she wrote in her 1995 autobiography, Rage to Survive.
‘I wanted to be rare, I wanted to be noticed, I wanted to be exotic as a Cotton Club chorus girl, and I wanted to be obvious as the most flamboyant hooker on the street. I just wanted to be.’
‘Etta James was a pioneer. Her ever-changing sound has influenced rock n’ roll, rhythm and blues, pop, soul and jazz artists, marking her place as one of the most important female artists of our time,’ said Rock and Roll Hall of Fame president and CEO Terry Stewart.
‘From Janis Joplin to Joss Stone, an incredible number of performers owe their debts to her. There is no mistaking the voice of Etta James, and it will live forever.’
Despite the reputation she cultivated, she would always be remembered best for At Last. The jazz-inflected rendition wasn’t the original, but it would become the most famous and the song that would define her as a legendary singer.
Over the decades, brides used it as their song down the aisle and car companies to hawk their wares, and it filtered from one generation to the next through its inclusion in movies such as American Pie. Perhaps most famously, President Obama and the first lady danced to a version at his inauguration ball.
The tender, sweet song belied the turmoil in her personal life. James – born Jamesette Hawkins – was born in Los Angeles to a mother whom she described as a scam artist, a substance abuser and a fleeting presence during her youth.
She never knew her father, although she was told and had believed, that he was the famous billiards player Minnesota Fats. He
neither confirmed nor denied it: when they met, he simply told her: ‘I don’t remember everything. I wish I did, but I don’t.’
She was raised by Lula and Jesse Rogers, who owned the rooming house where her mother once lived in. The pair brought up James in the Christian faith. James landed the solos in the church choir, becaming so well known, she said Hollywood stars would come to see her perform.
Rhythm and blues lured her away from the church, and she found herself drawn to the grittiness of the music, when bandleader Johnny Otis found her singing on San Francisco street corners with some girlfriends in the early 1950s. Otis, a legend in his own right, died on Tuesday.
At the time, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters had a hit with Work With Me, Annie, and they decided to do an answer with the song, Roll With Me, Henry.
When Otis heard it, he told James to get her mother’s permission to accompany him to Los Angeles to make a recording. Instead, the 15-year-old singer forged her mother’s name on a note claiming she was 18.
‘At that time, you weren’t allowed to say ‘roll’ because it was considered vulgar. So when Georgia Gibbs did her version, she renamed it Dance With Me, Henry and it went to No. 1 on the pop charts,’ the singer recalled. The Gibbs song was one of several in the early rock era when white singers got hits by covering songs by black artists, often with sanitised lyrics.
After her 1955 debut, James toured with Otis’ revue, sometimes earning only $US10 a night. In 1959, she signed with Chicago’s legendary Chess label, began cranking out the hits and going on tours with performers such as Bobby Vinton, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Everly Brothers.
In 1967, she cut one of the most highly regarded soul albums of all time, Tell Mama, an earthy fusion of rock and gospel music featuring blistering horn arrangements, funky rhythms and a churchy chorus. A song from the album, Security, was a top 40 single in 1968.
Her professional success, however, was balanced against personal demons, namely a drug addiction.
She was addicted to heroin for years, beginning in 1960, and it led to a harrowing existence that included time behind bars. It sapped her singing abilities and her money, eventually, almost destroying her career.
It would take her at least two decades to beat her drug problem. Her husband, Artis Mills, even went to prison for years, taking full responsibility for drugs during an arrest even though James was culpable.
She finally quit the habit and in 1984, was tapped to sing the national anthem at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and her career got the resurgent boost it needed.
Drug addiction wasn’t her only problem. She struggled with her weight, and often performed from a wheelchair as she got older and heavier. In the early 2000s, she had weight-loss surgery and shed some 90kg.