Etta James, the legendary singer whose career spanned six decades (and just as many musical genres) and whose voice has influenced everyone from Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt to Christina Aguilera and Adele, died Friday (January 20) after a lengthy battle with leukemia. She was 73 years old.
Best known for hits like “At Last,” “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “Tell Mama,” “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” and “Good Rockin’ Daddy,” James learned to sing in church, and first recorded professionally as a member of the all-girl doo-wop group the Peaches, with whom she’d score a #1 hit (“The Wallflower,” an answer to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me, Annie”). Soon after that song’s success, James left the group and toured with the likes of Little Richard and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. She’d subsequently sign with Chicago’s Chess Records in 1960, where her powerful contralto was featured on a string of crossover classics that spanned R&B, soul, gospel, blues and even rock. It was during that time that she also began a battle with heroin addiction, one that would lead to stints in rehabilitation facilities and stall her career’s momentum.
James would continue to record for Chess until 1978, then, after a stint opening for the Rolling Stones, she’d spend the next decade largely adrift, before returning with her comeback album, 1989’s Seven Year Itch, which reunited her with producer Jerry Wexler and began a period that saw her finally receive the acclaim she’d long deserved. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and, the following year, won her first-ever Grammy award. In subsequent years, she’d also be enshrined in both the Blues and Rockabilly Halls, earn a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys and continue to record a string of well-received blues and jazz albums.
Her Chess Records period was brought to the big screen (with varying degrees of accuracy) in the 2008 musical biopic “Cadillac Records,” with Beyoncé portraying James. Beyoncé’s cover of “At Last” was released as the lead single off the film’s soundtrack, and would go on to win a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance. Beyoncé would also perform the song at president Barack Obama’s inaugural ball in January 2009, a move which led James to famously tell an audience in Seattle that B “has no business up there singing … my song that I’ve been singing forever.” She’d later explain to the New York Daily News that she was joking, but added that she could’ve performed the song better.
In recent years, with her status secured (and her addiction problems largely behind her), James continued to tour, and she’s been championed by some of today’s biggest contemporary stars, like Adele, Aguilera, Florence Welch, Paramore’s Hayley Williams, Joss Stone and Jazon Mraz. She was also a particular favorite of the late Amy Winehouse, whose own battles with addiction sadly turned out differently than James’. And just this year, a sample of her “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” was used to maximum effect by DJ Avicii on his international hit “Levels,” while her voice can be heard via sample in Flo Rida’s current top ten hit, “Good Feeling.”
James’ health had been in decline for several years. In 2010, her son Donto told reporters that James had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and in January 2011, court documents filed by her husband — who was seeking to take control of her finances, as she was extremely ill — revealed that she was also undergoing treatment for leukemia. In December, James’ live-in physician told a California newspaper that the singer was “terminally ill” and asked “for the prayers of her fans and friends.” James’ final album, The Dreamer, was released in November.
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