Etta James, the powerhouse singer who combined blues, gospel and R&B and emerged as a major star in the ’50s and ’60s, has died after a long battle with leukemia. According to CNN, the sad news was confirmed by her friend and manager, Lupe De Leon, who revealed that James died in a Riverside, Calif., hospital. She was 73.
Best known for her 1961 version of ‘At Last,’ James enjoyed a remarkable career that spanned more than a half-century. Her string of hits began with 1955’s ‘The Wallflower (Dance With Me, Henry)’ and continued with such classics as ‘Spoonful,’ ‘Something’s Got a Hold on Me’ and ‘Tell Mama.’ Over the years, she won six Grammy awards, and in 1993, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The singer’s life was not without hardship, however. Her popularity declined in the ’70s and ’80s, and she struggled for years with an addiction to heroin. While she earned plaudits for the 1988 “comeback” album ‘Seven Year Itch,’ recorded after she’d completed a stint at the Betty Ford Center, health troubles continued to plague her throughout her life. In addition to leukemia, she spent recent years grappling with dementia, Hepatitis C and Alzheimer’s disease, and in January 2010, she was hospitalized for sepsis.
James caused a minor stir in 2009, when she criticized Beyonce, who played her in the film ‘Cadillac Records,’ for singing ‘At Last’ at President Obama‘s Neighborhood Inaugural Ball. She later told the New York Daily News that her remarks were made in jest, explaining that she’d “always had that comedian kind of attitude.” She admitted, however, that she felt “left out” when she was not asked to perform.
Born Jamesetta Hawkins to a 14-year-old mother on Jan. 25, 1938, James grew up in Los Angeles without ever knowing her father. She spent most of her early life in the care of friends and relatives, among them her grandparents, who took her to Baptist church. She soon joined the choir, and in later years, after she’d moved in with her mother in San Francisco — and begun to dabble in juvenile delinquency, according to AllMusic — she formed a singing group called the Creolettes. She eventually went solo and signed with Chess Records, the label that would bring the singer her greatest fame.
A major influence on generations of singers, James placed No. 62 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the greatest artists of all time. The legendary record producer Jerry Wexler once called her “the greatest of all modern blues singers … the undisputed Earth Mother,” according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website.
Musicians have recently come out of the woodwork to pay homage to the late artist. According to TMZ, singer Beyonce Knowles released a statement, thanking James for her years of inspiration. “I am so fortunate to have met such a queen. Her musical contributions will last a lifetime.” In 2009, James famously slammed Beyonce for singing ‘At Last’ at President Obama’s inauguration. Prior to that, Knowles had played the singer in the film ‘Cadillac Records.’ Despite James’ public disapproval, Beyonce remains an ever-fan of the blues maven.
“Playing Etta James taught me so much about myself, and singing her music inspired me to be a stronger artist. When she effortlessly opened her mouth, you could hear her pain and triumph. Her deeply emotional way of delivering a song told her story with no filter. She was fearless, and had guts. She will be missed.”