LOS ANGELES — 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.
The 73-year-old died on Friday at Riverside Community Hospital from complications of leukemia, with her husband and sons at her side, her manager, Lupe 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."
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.
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. 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 Jamesetta 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.
Bandleader Johnny Otis found her singing on San Francisco street corners with some girlfriends in the early 1950s. Otis, a legend in his own right, died on Tuesday.
"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.
"Etta James was a pioneer. Her ever-changing sound has influenced rock and roll, rhythm and blues, pop, soul and jazz artists, marking her place as one of the most important female artists of our time," said Rock and Roll Hall of Fame President and CEO Terry Stewart. "From Janis Joplin to Joss Stone, an incredible number of performers owe their debts to her. There is no mistaking the voice of Etta James, and it will live forever."
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."