Family, friends and fans gathered to remember Etta James at a memorial service on Saturday at City of Refuge Church in Gardena, California. The legendary singer was eulogized by the Rev. Al Sharpton, and her most beloved songs were brought to life with rousing performances by Christina Aguilera and Stevie Wonder.
Sharpton opened the service by reading a statement from President Barack Obama, whose first inaugural-ball dance with First Lady Michelle Obama was famously accompanied by a rendition of James’ classic “At Last” performed by Beyoncé.
“Etta will be remembered for her legendary voice and her contributions to our nation’s musical heritage,” Obama’s statement read.
James died on January 20 after a long battle with leukemia and other health problems, including kidney failure and dementia. She was 73.
Sharpton’s eulogy of James recounted a difficult life of poverty and pain that was brought out in songs that influenced contemporary singers from Aguilera and Adele to Florence Welch and Amy Winehouse, who like James battled drug addiction but unlike her idol was never able to overcome it. James was also a favorite of Beyoncé, who portrayed the singer in the 2008 film “Cadillac Records.”
“Etta James was one of the greatest vocalists of our time. I am so fortunate to have met such a queen,” Beyoncé said in a statement following James’ passing. “Her musical contributions will last a lifetime.”
“Out of all the singers that I’ve ever heard, she was the one that cut right to my soul and spoke to me,” Aguilera said before her performance of “At Last” at the service.
Wonder performed three songs, including “Shelter in the Rain,” an a cappella version of “The Lord’s Prayer” and a harmonica solo.
Sharpton emphasized how the singer’s music bolstered the civil rights movement. “Etta James helped break down the culture curtain of America before the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Sharpton said. “She was able to get us on the same rhythms and humming the same ballads and understanding each other’s melodies way before we could even use the same hotels.”
James is survived by her husband of 42 years, Artis Mills, and two sons, Donto and Sametto James.
“You beat ‘em, Etta,” Sharpton concluded. “At last, you can find peace now. At last, you can get the gratitude of the savior now. Etta, you made it, you’re going home. At last. At last. At last.”