By Gary Graff, Detroit
Etta James, the singer who turned “At Last” into a multi-generational standard and was an acknowledged influence on singers from Janis Joplin to Melissa Etheridge and Christina Aguilera, is gone not long after her voice was quieted.
James, who was 73, died on Friday (Jan. 20) in Riverside, Calif., after a long period of declining health, including kidney failure, leukemia and dementia. The singer has been hospitalized since mid-December, and on Dec. 23 her longtime manager Lupe De-Leon announced she was placed on a respirator.
James has been inactive since early 2010, when it was announced she was suffering with Alzheimer’s disease. She announced that she was formally retiring from music just before the Oct. 25 release of her final studio album, “The Dreamer;” in a statement James said that, “I wish to thank all my fans who have shown me love and support over all these years. I love you all.”
Aguilera cited Etta James as a crucial influence on her own singing style “because she was so emotional and soulful but at the same time very elegant and classy.” Aguilera adds that James also gave her some sage career advice.
“She said, ‘Don’t pay attention to any of the negativity out there. You keep doing what you’re doing and don’t care what other people think,’ ” Aguilera remembered. “She was so down to earth and so real. She called me an old soul and said that my voice reminded her of almost a Janis Joplin to a Diana Washington. She made my life wtih her compliments and the things she had to say.”
Beverly McClellan, Aguilera’s protege on NBC’s “The Voice,” told Billboard.com that, “I got turned on to Etta James in, probably, 2003 and I got a chance to see her under the starts at this quaint thing with about 250 people. I bought her barbecue and was like, ‘Man, this is the best day of my life.’ Her voice was so inspiring…”
James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, to an unknown father (she once speculated it was billiards great Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone) and an inattentive mother who left her to a variety of others to raise, sometimes in abusive domestic situations. James started singing when she was five years old, in the Echoes of Eden choir at Los Angeles’ St. Paul Baptist Church
James moved to San Francisco when she was 12 and soon became part of a doo-wop group called the Creolettes. The group changed its name to the Peaches and, through the patronage of Johnny Otis scored a No. 1 R&B hit with “The Wallflower (Dance With Me, Henry)” — an answer song to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me, Annie” — in 1955.
James left the Peaches shortly thereafter, signing with the Argo imprint of Chess Records in 1960 and starting a string of hits that included a pair of duets with Harvey Fuqua — “If I Can’t Have You” and “Spoonful” — and her own “All I Could Do is Cry” and “My Dearest Darling.” She also sang backup for other Chess artists, including Chuck Berry on “Back in the USA.
“At Last,” her signature song, was the idea of Chess co-founder Leonard Chess, who felt that James’ voice was suited for a ballad. “I wasn’t sure about that at first — shows you what I knew,” she remembered with a laugh during the early 90s. “At Last” — originally written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for the 1941 film musical “Orchestra Wives” — hit No. 2 on the R&B chart in 1962 and went No. 47 pop and went on to be covered by scores of artists, including Aguilera, Mariah Carey, Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, Liza Minnelli, Ella Fitgerald, Nat King Cole and Miles Davis. It remained her best-known musical moment, though she logged more hits such as “Trust In Me,” “The Fool That I Am,” “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” “Stop the Wedding” and “Pushover.”
James remained with Chess until 1978 but began battling heroin addiction during the mid-60s, not kicking it until 1974. She was also treated for substance abuse at the Betty Ford Center in 1988 and for painkiller dependence in 2010, and she battled obesity throughout her life.
James kept the music coming, however, with highlights that included opening for the Rolling Stones during the mid-80s and winning rave reviews for her 1989 Jerry Wexler-produced album “The Seven Year Itch,” which was her first studio album in seven years. She also recorded a version of Muddy Waters “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” for a popular Coca-Cola commercial, which gave James a Top 10 hit in the U.K. during 1996.
Bobby Murray, James’ guitarist since 1988, said that even in later years James’ talent remaiend “exceptional. What she does with a song is…amazing. And she’s seen so much from different eras. She was kind of around for the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and the early years of R&B, certainly the golden age of soul. She even did a gig with the Grateful Dead. It’s quite a history.”
James, who published her memoir “Rage To Survive: The Etta James Story” in 2003, received one of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s first Pioneer Awards in 1989 and an NAACP Image Award in 1990. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Rockabilly Hall of fame in 2001, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003 and the Billboard R&B Founders Award in 2006. She won three Grammy Awards plus a Lifetime Achievement honor in 2003, as well as nine Soul/Blues Female Artist of the Year awards from the Blues Foundation. Rolling Stone magazine ranked her No. 22 on its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, and No. 62 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists.
James made headlines in 2009, following a performance of “At Last” by Beyonce — who portrayed her in the Chess Records film “Cadillac Records” — at the inaugural ball for President Barack Obama. Eight days later James trashed Beyonce on stage in Seattle, threatening that the younger singer would “get her ass whipped.” She later explained she was joking, though she was genuinely hurt that she wasn’t invited to perform the song herself. Her son Donto later attributed the comments to the early onset of Alzheimer’s.
Donto and his brother, Sametto, played drums and bass, respectively, in their mother’s band. The two recently reached an agreement over management of the estate with their stepfather, Artie Mills, who married James in 1969 and is her estate’s conservator.