Etta James, the husky-voiced R&B singer, dies at 73
By Dan DeLuca
Inquirer Music Critic
Etta James, 73, the powerful rhythm-and-blues singer whose more than five-decade career spawned such enduring hits as "At Last" and "Tell Mama," making her a profound influence on younger generations of female vocalists, died Friday.
Ms. James, who suffered complications from leukemia, according to her manager, had been beset with a variety of health problems. In 2009, she was diagnosed with dementia; the following year, she was hospitalized with a staph infection. In December, weeks after the release of The Dreamer, which was billed as her final studio album, Ms. James' doctor told the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise that the singer, who also had been diagnosed with hepatitis C, was terminally ill with chronic leukemia.
A genre-bridging singer equally commanding and comfortable singing the blues, jazz, and rock-and-roll, Ms. James was a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award-winner and a member of the Rock and Roll and Blues Halls of Fame. The legendary producer Jerry Wexler called her "the greatest of modern blues singers . . . the undisputed Earth Mother."
Born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938 in Los Angeles, Etta James was the daughter of a 14-year-old mother and a father she never knew. She would later claim to have reason to believe her father was the legendary pool player Rudolf "Minnesota Fats" Wanderone Jr.
Ms. James began singing in the gospel choir of a Los Angeles church at age 5. She knew even then that she would be a performer, she told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2006, "because I was always a show-off." At an early age, she developed a taste for what she referred to as "rotgut, lowdown blues," but her mother also made her listen to the smoother sounds of Frank Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole. Her music would reflect that combination of influences throughout her career.
As a teenager, her vocal group, the Creolettes, was discovered by the bandleader Johnny Otis, who rechristened them the Peaches, after Ms. James' nickname. (Otis, as it turned out, also died this week, at age 90 on Tuesday.)
In 1955, the group scored a No. 1 R&B hit with an answer song to Hank Ballard's risqué "Work With Me Annie" called "The Wallflower." (Its original title was "Roll With Me Henry," which was considered too sexually suggestive for the era.) The Peaches scored one more hit, with "Good Rockin' Daddy," before Ms. James went solo. By 1956, she was on tour, opening for Little Richard.
Ms. James' solo career failed to catch fire in the late '50s. Then she signed with the Chicago blues label Chess and, in 1960, released At Last!, an album that surrounded her husky voice with lush strings in an effort to court a broader pop audience than usual for a label that was home to the electric bluesmen Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.
It worked. The album scored four pop hits, including the title cut, written by Mack Gordon and Henry Warden for the 1941 musical Orchestra Wives. It became Ms. James' signature song and a perennially popular first-dance choice at wedding receptions. In 2009, Beyoncé Knowles sang "At Last" at an inaugural ball while President Obama danced with his wife. Knowles had portrayed James in Cadillac Records, a 2008 movie that depicted a fictional affair between the singer and Chess cofounder Leonard Chess.