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 realized 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 R&B 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.
In other words, she was one of music’s original bad girls.
“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.”
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 R&B, blues and rock ‘n’ roll’s underrated legends. The 73-year-old died at Riverside Community Hospital, with her husband and sons at her side, 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.”
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 like “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, and as a young girl, her voice stood out in the church choir. James landed the solos in the choir and became so well known, she said that Hollywood stars would come to see her perform.
But she wouldn’t stay a gospel singer for long. Rhythm and blues lured her away from the church, and she found herself drawn to the grittiness of the music.
“My mother always wanted me to be a jazz singer, but I always wanted to be raunchy,” she recalled in her book.
She was doing just that when bandleader Johnny Otis found her singing on San Francisco street corners with some girlfriends in the early 1950s.
“At the time, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters had a hit with ‘Work With Me, Annie,’ and we decided to do an answer. We didn’t think we would get in show business, we were just running around making up answers to songs,” James told The Associated Press in 1987.
And so they replied 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 sanitized lyrics.
After her 1955 debut, James toured with Otis’ revue, sometimes earning only $10 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.
“We would travel on four buses to all the big auditoriums. And we had a lot of fun,” she recalled in 1987.
James recorded a string of hits in the late 1950s and ‘60s including “Trust In Me,” '‘Something’s Got a Hold On Me,” '‘Sunday Kind of Love,” '‘All I Could Do Was Cry,” and of course, “At Last.”
”(Chess Records founder) Leonard Chess was the most aware of anyone. He went up and down the halls of Chess announcing, ‘Etta’s crossed over! Etta’s crossed over!’ I still didn’t know exactly what that meant, except that maybe more white people were listening to me. The Chess brothers kept saying how I was their first soul singer, that I was taking their label out of the old Delta blues, out of rock and into the modern era. Soul was the new direction,” she wrote in her autobiography. “But in my mind, I was singing old style, not new.”
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.
“I was trying to be cool,” she told the AP in 1995, explaining what had led her to try heroin.
“I hung out in Harlem and saw Miles Davis and all the jazz cats,” she continued. “At one time, my heavy role models were all druggies. Billie Holiday sang so groovy. Is that because she’s on drugs? It was in my mind as a young person. I probably thought I was a young Billie Holiday, doing whatever came with that.”
She was addicted to the drug 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.
“My management was suffering. My career was in the toilet. People tried to help, but I was hell-bent on getting high,” she wrote of her drug habit in 1980.
She finally quit the habit and managed herself for a while, calling up small clubs and asking them, “Have you ever heard of Etta James?” in order to get gigs. Eventually, she got regular bookings — even drawing Elizabeth Taylor as an audience member. In 1984, she was tapped to sing the national anthem at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and her career got the resurgent boost it needed, though she fought addiction again when she got hooked on painkillers in the late 1980s.
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 200 pounds.
James performed well into her senior years, and it was “At Last” that kept bringing her the biggest ovations. The song was a perennial that never aged, and on Jan. 20, 2009, as crowds celebrated that — at last — an African-American had become president of the United States, the song played as the first couple danced.
But it was superstar Beyonce who serenaded the Obamas, not the legendary singer. Beyonce had portrayed James in “Cadillac Records,” a big-screen retelling of Chess Records’ heyday, and had started to claim “At Last” as her own.
An audio clip surfaced of James at a concert shortly after the inauguration, saying she couldn’t stand the younger singer and that Beyonce had “no business singing my song.” But she told the New York Daily News later that she was joking, even though she had been hurt that she did not get the chance to participate in the inauguration.
James did get her accolades over the years. She was inducted into the Rock Hall in 1993, captured a Grammy in 2003 for best contemporary blues album for “Let’s Roll,” one in 2004 for best traditional blues album for “Blues to the Bone” and one for best jazz vocal performance for 1994’s “Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday.” She was also awarded a special Grammy in 2003 for lifetime achievement and got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Her health went into decline, however, and by 2011, she was being cared for at home by a personal doctor.
She suffered from dementia, kidney problems and leukemia. Her husband and her two sons fought over control of her $1 million estate, though a deal was later struck keeping Mills as the conservator and capping the singer’s expenses at $350,000. In December 2011, her physician announced that her leukemia was terminal, and asked for prayers for the singer.
In October 2011, it was announced that James was retiring from recording, and a final studio recording, “The Dreamer,” was released, featuring the singer taking on classic songs, from Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Dreamer” to Guns N’ Roses “Welcome To the Jungle” — still rocking, and a fitting end to her storied career.