What a voice: Etta James, idol to many, dies of complications from leukemia
Etta James, the influential 1950s rhythm-and-blues singer best known for her show-stopping hit “At Last,” died on Friday from complications of leukemia in a California hospital surrounded by her family. She was 73.
Her death prompted tributes from numerous musicians and artists who were influenced by her singing, from pop star Mariah Carey to Aretha Franklin and legendary rock band The Doors.
James died in her hometown of Riverside, California, east of Los Angeles, said her manager and friend of some 30 years, Lupe De Leon. She would have turned 74 on Wednesday.
“She passed away this morning. She was with her husband and her sons,” said De Leon.
James was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago and had been in failing health for a number of years. Her live-in doctor said in December she was terminally ill with leukemia. James also suffered from diabetes, kidney problems and dementia and was hospitalized late in 2011 because she was struggling to breathe.
The three-time Grammy award-winning R&B singer saw numerous ups-and-downs in her career and personal life. She struggled with obesity and heroin addiction, ran a hot-check scheme and had troubled relationships with men, including some gangsters. Her weight ballooned, and in 2003 she underwent gastric bypass surgery and lost more than 200 pounds.
Yet in the music industry, among fellow R&B artists and rock icons, James’ career was legendary. With songs like “The Wallflower” and “Good Rockin’ Daddy,” the three-time Grammy winner was a key figure in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, and her signature song, the 1961 ballad “At Last,” proved her mastery of the blues.
Carey, one of dozens of musicians paying tribute on Twitter on Friday, said, “Rest in peace to one of the world’s most influential singers Etta James, you will be missed.”
Beyonce, who was criticized by James in 2009 for singing “At Last” at the inaugural ball for U.S. President Barack Obama, said on Friday she was fortunate to have met “such a queen.”
“Singing her music inspired me to be a stronger artist. When she effortlessly opened her mouth, you could hear her pain and triumph,” Beyonce said on her official website.
Aretha Franklin called James “an American original.” “When Etta SUNG, you heard it!” Franklin said in a statement.
The Recording Academy, which gives out the Grammys, said James left behind a dynamic legacy. “She will forever be remembered for her timeless ballad ‘At Last,’ and a powerful voice that will echo around the world for generations to come,” academy president Neil Portnow said in a statement.
Other tributes came from LeAnn Rimes, Pink, Kings of Leon drummer Nathan Followill, Chaka Khan, Simon LeBon of Duran Duran, hip-hop producer Russell Simmons and British blues-rock singer Steve Winwood. The Doors called James “one of the world’s legendary R&B icons.”
James sang with a mixture of power and pain that led veteran musical producer Jerry Wexler to call her “the greatest of all modern blues singers ... the undisputed Earth Mother.”
But throughout her long career she diversified into mainstream blues, soul and R&B. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
“Etta James is simply one of the best singers I’ve ever heard,” singer-guitarist Bonnie Raitt wrote in Rolling Stone magazine. “ ... Etta is earthy and gritty, ribald and out-there in a way that few performers have the guts to be.”
James’ last album, “The Dreamer,” was released in 2011. She spent the latter part of her life at home in California.
She was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles on January 25, 1938, to an unmarried teenager who told her that her father was legendary pool shark Rudolph Wanderone, better known as Minnesota Fats. James told CNN she introduced herself to Wanderone in 1987 but was unable to confirm he was her father.
James sang gospel in the church choir and stood out even as a 5-year-old. By 1954, she recorded “Roll With Me Henry” with two other girls in a trio called The Peaches.
The group was discovered by bandleader Johnny Otis, and their song, renamed “The Wallflower,” topped R&B charts in 1955. The Peaches eventually split up, but James continued recording and later that year “Good Rockin’ Daddy” hit the charts.
Otis died on Tuesday in the Los Angeles area, age 90.
In the 1960s, James signed with Chicago’s legendary Chess Records label and sang songs like “At Last” and “Trust in Me” that were backed by orchestras. But she never strayed too far from her gospel roots, as evidenced by 1962’s “Something’s Got a Hold of Me.”
Over the decades, James’ hit the R&B charts with 30 singles, and placed nine of those songs in pop music’s top 40. She has often been cited as influencing singers including Raitt, Janis Joplin and Tina Turner.
James won her first Grammy in 1995 for her album, “Mystery Lady: The Songs of Billie Holiday.” She also won Grammys in 2003 and 2005, as well as a lifetime achievement award in 2003 from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which gives out the Grammys.
She is survived by her husband, Artis Mills, two sons Donto and Sametto who played in James’ backing band, and four grandchildren.