Etta James, the sultry, powerful blues, R&B and jazz singer who infused her work with a depth of emotion culled from hard-fought experience, died today in Riverside, Calif. She was 73. In 2010, Ms. James was diagnosed with leukemia. The singer also suffered from hepatitis C and dementia and spent two weeks in the hospital earlier this month.
Ms. James is best known for her 1961 hit “At Last,” which is the definitive version of the oft-covered classic. Though her career was marked by fits and starts, she continued to record throughout the years; her ’90 disk “Seven-Year-Itch” is among her overlooked masterworks. Her ’93 release “Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday” is a loving tribute to one of her influences – though on the disk the always-bold Ms. James doesn’t surrender to Ms. Holiday’s distinctive style. She earned a Grammy as a Jazz Vocalist for the Holiday tribute, one of six she received from the recording academy.
Ms. James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938 in Los Angeles. After moving to San Francisco in 1950, she formed a doo-wop trio and shortly thereafter met singer, composer and producer Johnny Otis, who, coincidentally, died last Tuesday. In 1955, as a member of the Peaches, she had a top hit on the R&B charts with “Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry),” Otis’s sly reply to Hank Ballard’s “Work with Me, Annie.” A year later, as a solo act she toured with Little Richard and later with Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
Her best-known work came during her stint with Chess Records. Her ’61 album “At Last!” illustrated her versatility: In addition to the title track, it also included the jazz ballads “Stormy Weather” and “Sunday Kind of Love” as well as Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” popularized by fellow Chess artist Muddy Waters. In ’68, she had a memorable hit with “I’d Rather Go Blind.”
Her career was halted by a crippling addiction to heroin that led briefly to a life of crime. Though she is said to have kicked heroin in the mid ‘70s – as part of a plea agreement, she was sentenced to a drug treatment center instead of prison – Ms. James continued to fight against the temptation of drugs for much of the remainder of her adult years. Her tumultuous personal life was depicted in her 2003 autobiography “Rage to Survive” as well as in the ‘08 film “Cadillac Records,” in which she was portrayed by Beyoncé. Despite her rocky road, Ms. James’ talent rarely wavered.
Etta James is member of the Rock & Roll, Rockabilly, Blues and Grammy halls of fame and is honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced.