Etta James Succumbs To Leukemia At 73
Etta James, whose sultry voice penned such hits as the incredible wedding favorite “At Last,” has died on January 20, 2012, according to her longtime friend and manager, Lupe De Leon. She was 73.
James died from complications from leukemia with her husband, Artis Mills, and her sons by her side, De Leon said.
She was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010, and also suffered from dementia and hepatitis C. James died at a hospital in Riverside, California. She would have turned 74 Wednesday.
“This is a tremendous loss for the family, her friends and fans around the world,” De Leon said. “She was a true original who could sing it all — her music defied category.
“I worked with Etta for over 30 years. She was my friend and I will miss her always.”
Throughout her career, James overcame a heroin addiction, opened for the Rolling Stones, won six Grammys and was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Despite her ups and downs — including a number of health problems — she maintained an optimistic attitude.
“Most of the songs I sing, they have that blue feeling to it. They have that sorry feeling. And I don’t know what I’m sorry about,” she told CNN’s Denise Quan in 2002. “I don’t!”
Through it all, she was a spitfire beloved by contemporaries and young up-and-comers.
British songstress and award-winning artist Adele named James as one of her favorite singers, along with Aretha Franklin.
“If you were to look up the word singer in the dictionary, you’d see their names,” Adele said in an interview.
Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles to a teen mother and unknown father. (She suspected her father was the pool player Minnesota Fats.)
Her birth mother initially took little responsibility and James was raised by a series of people, notably a pair of boardinghouse owners. But she was recognized from a young age for her booming voice, showcased in a South Central Los Angeles church.
She entered rehab in the 1970s for her drug problem but re-established herself with live performances and an album produced by noted R&B mastermind Jerry Wexler. After another stint in rehab — this time at the Betty Ford Clinic — she made a comeback album, “Seven Year Itch,” in 1988.
James mastered a range of styles — from R&B and soul to jazz and blues — but she was always one step behind the popular genre of the day, said Michael Coyle, a Colgate University professor who has written about jazz and R&B and reviews records for Cadence Magazine.
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.
Earlier this year, news reports revealed that the singer’s estate was being contested in a legal struggle between her husband, Artis Mills, and son Donto James. (Donto and her other son, Sametto, both played in her band.)
Over the years, James had her share of health problems. In the late 1990s she reportedly weighed more than 400 pounds and required a scooter to get around. In 2003 she had gastric bypass surgery and dropped more than half the weight, according to People magazine.
However, until her latest issues, James maintained a steady touring schedule and appeared full of energy even when sitting down — as she sometimes did on stage, due to bad knees and her weight battles.
Even while sitting down, James gave it her all on stage, singing as though possessed, caressing every note like a long-lost love. If that seemed a little much to critics, well, the legendary singer had a show to put on, she told Quan.