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Etta James, Sassy Singer of Jazz, Blues, ‘At Last,’ Dies at 73

Etta James performs at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 26, 2009. Photographer: Rick Diamond/Getty Images
Etta James performs at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 26, 2009. Photographer: Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Jan. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Etta James, the versatile vocalist who brought emotional intensity to songs such as “At Last” and influenced performers from Janis Joplin to Christina Aguilera during a six-decade career, has died. She was 73.

The singer died early today at Riverside Community Hospital in California from complications of leukemia, the Associated Press reported, citing her manager, Lupe De Leon. Her disease was declared incurable early last month, according to the Riverside Press-Enterprise.

James defied musical labels. She started out singing raunchy rhythm and blues and grew equally adept at southern soul, jazz, blues, rock ‘n’ roll and standards. Even as she neared her 70th birthday, she remained one of the sassiest performers in music, rivaling some hip-hop artists with her stage antics.

“Etta is earthy and gritty, ribald and out there in a way that few performers have the guts to be,” singer Bonnie Raitt wrote in a 2005 article for Rolling Stone magazine. “You can’t overestimate her influence.”

For most of the 1960s and 1970s James battled heroin addiction, though she kept performing. Her reputation as a survivor only increased her popularity. She opened for the Rolling Stones in 1978, sang at the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984 and won four Grammy Awards, including one for lifetime achievement.

‘Roll With Me’

James shot to fame in 1955 with “Roll With Me Henry,” a so-called answer song to the risque “Work With Me Annie” by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. The title was so suggestive that Modern Records released the song as “The Wallflower.” It topped the R&B charts for four weeks.

Forty years later, she earned a new generation of fans when her soulful 1961 rendition of the ballad “At Last” was featured in a Jaguar commercial and several films. Her recording of “I Just Want to Make Love to You” was used in a Diet Coke commercial in 1996.

James shocked and delighted fans with her salacious live performances. She would lick her lips and roll her eyes whenever she sang the word “kiss” or sit in a black leather chair with “Etta” emblazoned near her crotch. She simulated sexual acts with various objects on stage.

In 1993, James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which cited her “raw, unharnessed vocals and hot-blooded eroticism” and compared her influence on rock music with that of Ray Charles, Little Richard and Chuck Berry.

Father’s Identity

Jamesetta Hawkins was born on Jan. 25, 1938, in Los Angeles, the daughter of Dorothy Hawkins, a 14-year-old black girl who hung around that city’s jazz scene.

According to James’ 1995 autobiography, “Rage to Survive,” Hawkins changed her story many times about the real identity of James’s father. Then one day while watching television, Hawkins pointed out the white pool shark Minnesota Fats, whose real name was Rudolf Wanderone Jr., and told James definitively that he was her father.

“I looked at his eyes, looked at his nose, looked at the way he turned his head, and I knew for once Dorothy wasn’t lying,” James wrote. “I could feel the man’s blood running through my veins.”

James met Wanderone once, when she tracked him down at the hotel in Nashville where he lived. He died in 1996.

A musical prodigy, James shook her ringlets and sang in baby talk to the jukebox as an infant, wailing whenever a song ended. By age 5, she was singing gospel music at St. Paul’s Baptist Church in South Central Los Angeles.

Peaches to Etta

At 14, she moved to San Francisco, where she formed a singing group, the Creolettes, with two other girls. Bandleader Johnny Otis, after hearing the trio at an impromptu audition, brought them to Hollywood.

Otis, who died three days ago, used Etta’s nickname, Peaches, to rename the group and inverted James’s own name from Jamesetta. She would use that stage name for the rest of her life.

“The Wallflower” by the Peaches shot to No. 1 on the R&B charts. Rewritten as “Dance With Me Henry,” the song also became a pop hit for singer Georgia Gibbs. A follow-up, “Good Rockin Daddy,” hit No. 6. James also made a splash as one of the first black women to dye her hair platinum blonde.

“I wanted to be rare, I wanted to be noticed, I wanted to be glamorous,” she wrote in her autobiography, noting that her image was largely created by her entourage of gay male friends. “I wanted to be exotic as a Cotton Club chorus girl, and I wanted to be obvious as the most flamboyant hooker on the street.”

‘At Last’

The group soon broke up, but James kept recording with Modern Records. In 1960, she signed with Argo, a division of the Chicago label Chess Records, home of Berry and Muddy Waters.

At Chess, she recorded a pair of chart-climbing duets with then-boyfriend Harvey Fuqua of the black harmony group The Moonglows. On her own, she scored her biggest hits with the label, including “At Last” and “All I Could Do Was Cry.”

In 1967, she traveled to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where she recorded two classics of Southern soul, “Tell Mama” and “I Would Rather Go Blind.” She left Chess in 1975.

After a couple of abusive relationships, she married Artis Mills in 1969. Both were heroin addicts, and they resorted to robbing other junkies and passing bad checks in the early 1970s. Mills would serve almost a decade in prison on drug charges.

The two stayed together through their recovery and after.

Dispute Over Estate

As of last month James was being cared for at her home in Riverside while Mills and her son, Donto James, were in a legal fight over her $1 million estate, the Riverside Press-Enterprise reported.

In addition to Donto, James had another son, Sametto.

Though successful on the predominantly black R&B circuit, James remained relatively unknown to most white listeners until Joplin’s incendiary live performances of “Tell Mama” sent fans looking for the original version. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones also cited her as a major influence.

James gained more white listeners in the 1980s after her appearance in the film “Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.” She won her first Grammy in 1994 for “Mystery Lady,” her tribute to her mother’s idol, Billie Holiday. She didn’t attend the ceremony, saying the sudden recognition by the primarily white music establishment made her feel like she was being handed a “chicken and a watermelon.”

“You know, I’ve been out there on stage and making records for all these years, and suddenly they want to turn around and notice me?” she said. Still, James said she appreciated her new fans.

New Voice

She struggled with her weight, growing to 400 pounds by 2002. Her size, combined with knee problems, forced her to begin concerts by riding onstage on a motor scooter.

In 2002, she underwent gastric bypass surgery and lost more than 200 pounds. Within her new body, James said she also found a new voice, one that was higher, lower and louder.

“Etta James’ voice is just as commanding as it was when she was young, but it’s different -- deeper, tougher,” film director Martin Scorsese wrote in the liner notes to “Blues to the Bone,” her 2005 album. “How could it not be? That’s what life can do to you.”

In 2003, she was given two Grammys -- one for lifetime achievement, the other for best contemporary blues album for “Let’s Roll” -- and a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. “Blues to the Bone” won her another Grammy in 2005.

“All The Way,” a 2006 album of covers ranging from John Lennon’s “Imagine” to R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” showcased James’s versatility.

“People always ask me, ‘Are you blues or jazz?” James once said. “Who cares?”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at

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