2012-January 20 –
Blues singer Etta James, who is most famous for the hit song “At Last,” has died from complications of leukemia, her manager confirmed to the Associated Press. She had been diagnosed with chronic leukemia in January 2011.
Court records show the 73-year-old entertainer also suffered from dementia and kidney failure. She had been under the 24-hour care of Dr. Elaine James, who is unrelated.
James was born in Los Angeles to a 14-year-old mother and an unknown father. She was brought up by a series of caregivers and began taking vocal lessons at the age of five through her local Baptist church.
James became a gospel prodigy and began singing with two other girls in a doo-wop trio called The Peaches in San Francisco. At 14, James met bandleader Johnny Otis, known today as the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues.” Otis produced James’ first hit with The Peaches, called “Roll With Me, Henry” (which was later renamed “The Wallflower”). The song was released in 1955 and soon reached No. 1 on the R&B charts.
Following the success of “Roll With Me, Henry,” James left The Peaches and toured with singer Little Richard and guitarist and singer Johnny Watson. Her first major solo hit, “All I Could Do is Cry,” reached No. 2 on the Billboard R&B Chart in 1960.
In 1960, James signed with Chess Records and recorded “At Last” a year later. In 1968, she released the album “Tell Mama,” which included the song “I’d Rather Go Blind.” It became an instant hit, as did the album’s title track. In 1962, James recorded the hit song “Something’s Got A Hold of Me,” sections of which were used this year in rapper Flo Rida’s song “Good Feeling.”
The singer battled a heroin addiction in the 1960’s and 1970’s. James had several legal problems relating to her addiction, including being accused of heroin possession, cashing bad checks and forgery. In 1974, after being in and out of rehab for over a decade, James was sentenced to drug treatment instead of serving time in prison and spent 17 months in the hospital. In 1988, at the age of 50, James returned to treatment at the Betty Ford Center in California.
James’ career made a comeback in 1989 with the album “Seven Year Itch.” Four years later, she released “Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday” as a tribute to her idol. James was awarded her first Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, for that album in 1994.
Throughout her career, James has released 30 albums and 58 singles. She has explored the musical genres of gospel, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and jazz.
“In concert, Etta James is a sassy, no-holds-barred performer whose suggestive stage antics sometimes border on the obscene,” wrote All Music Guide’s Bill Dahl.
James was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001, and the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 and 2008. In 2003, James received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She was awarded six Grammys and 17 Blues Music Awards, and was named No. 22 on Rolling Stones’ 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. Beyonce Knowles played James in the 2008 movie Cadillac Records. After Knowles sang “At Last” for President Barack Obama’s inaugural ball in 2009, James said Knowles was going to “get her ass whooped” for singing her song. Her son Donto attributed James’ comments to dementia.
James is survived by her husband, Artis Mills, and their two sons, Donto and Sametto.