Whether you know the name or not, legendary blues singer and Grammy winner Etta James cemented her place in music history with her soulful rendition of “At Last.” Though originally written in 1941 by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for the musical movie “Orchestra Wives,” Etta James’ 1960 adaptation became cemented in the minds of the public. Sadly, her voice was silenced on January 20, 2012. CNN.com reported that the blues singer died after a long struggle with leukemia at the age of 73.
Etta James’ life was marked with professional highs mixed with personal lows one would expect from a blues singer. She was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938 in Los Angeles, California, to 14-year-old Dorothy Hawkins. Though she never knew the true identity of her father, legend has it that he was possibly famous pool shark Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone. James’ mother, though, had a lot of partners at the time.
James’ voice captivated people at an early age, and she began singing in the Echoes of Eden choir at St. Paul Baptist Church. At five years old, she sang on a local radio station. She moved to San Francisco at 12 years old, where she put together an all-girl trio. She later met bandleader Johnny Otis. Incidentally, Otis died a few days before James on January 17, 2012, at the age of 90.
In the 1950s, she signed a contract with Modern Records, and she changed her named to Etta James. Her first major hit, which she also co-wrote as a song, was originally entitled “Roll with Me, Henry.” They changed the name of the song to “Dance with me, Henry,” then to “The Wallflower” because of the sexual connotation of the song. In 1955, the song topped the R&B chart for four weeks. She continued touring with Otis and other musicians throughout the late 50s.
In the early 1960s, James singed with Chicago-based Chess Records, where she began to express herself as a modern blues singer and a singer of R&B ballads. Producer Ralph Bass and singer Harvey Fuqua mentored the young singer who was still in her early 20’s. At Chess Records, James sang songs that crossed over to the pop charts, including “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “My Dearest Darling,” “Don’t Cry, Baby,” and her signature hit “At Last.”
Her personal life and her professional life intersected, as she also dated her mentor, Harvey Fuqua, for a time. She also struggled with heroin addiction, which affected her ability to make a new album, and had a number of legal problems. She and her husband Artis Mills were both arrested for drug possession. She also faced charged for passing bad checks and forgery. James recorded the album “Tell Mama” with the Muscle Shoals house band. Despite her personal trials in the 1960s, 30 of her singles made the R&B charts and nine made the Top 40.
James finally kicked her heroine addiction in the early 1970s, after being in and out of treatment centers, and embarked on a comeback career. After years of not working with her, Chess Records resigned the artist in 1973 after she cleaned up her act. Critics and fans were impressed with the world-weary artist when she released her 1973 self-titled album. She earned a Grammy nomination for her effort. Her contract with Chess ended in 1977, and she signed with Warner Brothers Records.
Beginning in the late 1970s, James gained new generations of fans who discovered her soulful, bluesy, jazzy voice. She embraced newer musicians as well, even opening for the Rolling Stones in 1978 during the height of their popularity. In 1984, she sang “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the Summer Olympics, held in her home city of Los Angeles. She continued getting Grammy nominations in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.
She still had a hard time with addiction from the 1980s to the 2000s, entering rehabilitation facilities for substance abuse and addiction to painkillers. In the final years of her life, she also began suffering health problems. In 2010, she canceled concerts because of a blood infection and Alzheimer’s disease. The following years, she had a urinary tract infection and sepsis. She was diagnosed with leukemia in 2011.
On January 20, 2012, she died at Riverside Community Hospital in Riverside, California. Her husband Artis Mills and her two sons were at her side.
Etta James leaves behind a great musical legacy and proved that adversity in life translates to beautiful music. She received 15 Grammy nominations, winning three. She was also earned the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Her songs “The Wallflower” and “At Last” were also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1993, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She has also inspired singers like Janis Joplin, Christina Aguilera and Beyonce, who played her in the 2008 biopic “Cadillac Records.”