Etta James, the big-voiced R&B, blues, and jazz singer whose song "At Last" has become a standard of weddings and late-night romantic trysts (not to mention a mediocre rom-com or 12), died today at a hospital in Riverside, Calif. James had been battling leukemia for some time, with reports just last month that she was receiving at-home care after also suffering from dementia and Hepatitis C. She was 73.
James' death comes just few days after the passing of Johnny Otis, the man who co-wrote her breakthrough song "The Wallflower" and came up with her stage moniker, a re-working of her real name Jamesetta Hawkins. The song kick-started a career that would last nearly 60 years, right up through James' final album, 2011's The Dreamer. She was known for her powerhouse voice, and James was confident enough in that voice not to oversell it. If a force of nature can be described as graceful, then it fits Etta James.
Born Jan. 25, 1938 in Los Angeles, James had a 14-year-old mother and a father she never knew (though she later believed it was legendary pool player Rudolf "Minnesota Fats" Wanderone). Because her mother often wasn't around to take care of her, James grew up in the company of surrogate authority figures, and quickly took to singing, first joining up with local church choirs. By her teens, she was singing with doo-wop groups in San Francisco, where Otis discovered her.
When "The Wallflower" (perhaps better known as "Roll With Me Henry") became a No. 1 hit on the rhythm & blues chart in 1955, James was on her way. But it wasn't until she signed with the great Chicago blues label Chess Records in 1960 that she really hit her stride. It was there that she recorded her biggest hits and best songs, including "At Last," "I'd Rather Go Blind," "A Sunday Kind Of Love," and the gospel-powered "Something's Got A Hold On Me," which was recently sampled by Flo Rida for the current Top 10 hit, "Good Feeling."
James' tenure at Chess ended in 1978, and she spent the next several years mired in drug and alcohol addiction. By 1987, she was ready to forge a comeback, though, singing "Rock & Roll Music" in the Chuck Berry concert film Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. In the '90s, James' music started appearing in commercials, and appreciation of her legacy was re-ignited thanks to albums like 1994's Mystery Lady: Songs Of Billie Holiday. She's now considered a national treasure, with a batch of timeless songs that bridge the gaps between rock, soul, blues, and jazz.