Etta James, the singer who found her greatest success with the 1961 hit “At Last,” died Friday morning due to complications from leukemia. She was 73.
James, who was hospitalized in May for a life-threatening blood infection, had been diagnosed with dementia, leukemia and hepatitis C. In December, James’ manager told Entertainment Weekly that the singer was in the “final stages of leukemia.” A month earlier, she released what she said would be her final album.
Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles on January 25, 1938, James began her music career early, receiving her first professional vocal training at five and forming a doo-wop group, the Creolettes, in her early teens, after her mother relocated her to San Francisco. After renaming themselves the Peaches, the group scored a hit, “The Wallflower (Dance With Me, Henry),” which reached No. 1 on the rhythm and blues chart in 1955.
The singer signed with legendary Chicago-based label Chess Records in 1960, scoring a string of hits including “If I Can’t Have You” (a duet with Harvey Fuqua) and “My Dearest Darling.” It was the 1961 ballad “At Last,” however, that solidified her place in the music world. Piled high with violins and other string instruments, James’ stirring version of the Mack Gordon and Harry Warren tune became her signature song, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
Watch James perform “At Last” during her 1993 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the video.
Though more hits -- including “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” “Stop the Wedding” and “Pushover” -- followed, James’ career became hampered by a heroin addiction that led to multiple stays in a psychiatric hospital and rehab facilities, as well as arrests. In 1972, she and husband Artis Mills were arrested for heroin possession; Mills took responsibility, serving a 10-year jail sentence.
James would struggle with substance abuse throughout her life, undergoing treatment for a painkiller dependency in her later years.
James also generated headlines in 2009, when she opined during a Seattle concert that Beyonce Knowles -- who played James in the 2008 film “Cadillac Records” -- should “get her ass whipped” for performing “At Last” for President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball.
She later said she was joking, but that she was hurt she wasn’t asked to perform. Asked by the New York Daily News if she could have performed it better, she responded, “I think so. That’s a shame to say that.”
The music kept coming. In 2009, James performed “At Last” on “Dancing With the Stars,” and her final album, “The Dreamer,” was released by Verve Forecast in November.
James was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, and received six Grammy awards, including a 1994 award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance for her album “Mystery Lady,” and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.
James is survived by her husband Artis Mills and her two sons, Donto and Sametto, who had performed with their mother since 2003, on drums and bass guitar, respectively.