Jan 20, 2012
Etta James, the soul shaking singer who made "At Last" and “I 'd Rather Go Blind” standards, has died,from complications from leukemia. She is survived byher husband, Artis Mills, and her sons, both of who played in her band. She would have turned 74 Wednesday.
Throughout her career, James overcame a heroin addiction, opened for the Rolling Stones, won six Grammys (including a 1994 award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance for her album "Mystery Lady," and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.) and was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles to a teen mother and unknown father (She suspected her father was the pool player Minnesota Fats), she was recognized from a young age for her booming voice, showcased in a South Central Los Angeles church. In 1950, her mother took her to San Francisco, where James formed a group called the Peaches. Singer Johnny Otis (who ironically also passed away this week) , best known for "Willie and the Hand Jive," discovered her and had her sing a song he wrote using Ballard's tune as a model. "The Wallflower," with responses from "Louie Louie" songwriter Richard Berry, made James an R&B star.
Her signing to Chess introduced her singing abilities to a broader audience, resulting in hits including "A Sunday Kind of Love," which originally dates from 1946; and most notably, "At Last," a 1941 number that was originally a hit for Glenn Miller. Later, her stalled career got a boost when she started recording at Rick Hall's FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the late 1960’s. Her hits recorded there included the brassy "Tell Mama" and the raw "I'd Rather Go Blind.”
James was portrayed by pop star Beyonce in the 2008 film "Cadillac Records," about Chess. After Beyonce sang "At Last" at one of President Barack Obama's 2009 inaugural balls, James lashed out: "I can't stand Beyonce. She had no business up there singing my song that I've been singing forever." She later told the New York Daily News she was joking.
Click here to listen to saxophonist Houston Person do her proud on this version of “At Last” from his Stolen Sweets album in 1977.