When playing word association, “At Last” will always invoke one name: Etta James. When American soul legend James passed away on Jan. 20, 2012, due to complications of leukemia, it was a tremendous loss to the R&B/soul community — and all music lovers in general.
But despite winning six Grammy Awards, recording countless tracks with a who’s who list of artists and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, many would be hard pressed to name any of her singles outside of the vintage 1961 track. The Los Angeles-born and raised James (born Jamesetta Hawkins on Jan. 25, 1938) will be inextricably linked to her timeless and oft-covered hit song.
From gospel beginnings to “At Last” soul stardom
Born in California to a 14-year-old teen mother — she reportedly never found out who her real father was — James grew up shuttled between various caregivers in her early years. It was in St. Paul Baptist Church in South Los Angeles where a young 5-year-old James received her gospel vocal training and was recognized for her exceptional vocal ability by the famed “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues” Johnny Otis in 1954 (who also recently passed away on Jan. 17, 2012, a scant three days before James herself). The rest of that decade would see James tour as a member of the Johnny Otis Band where she recorded tracks (early hits like “Dance with Me, Henry”) and shared stages with big-name artists such as Little Richard and Otis Redding.
In the 1960s, James flourished as a star on the Chess Records label where she seamlessly segued between various musical genres, from doo-wop ditties to breathy R&B/blues ballads and jazz standards. 1961’s “At Last” spawned the most famous version of the title, along with classics such as “A Sunday Kind of Love” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You.”
James would remain with Chess Records until it folded in the mid-1970s, delivering hits such as “Tell Mama” and “I’d Rather Go Blind”. James unfortunately struggled with drug and alcohol addiction during the post-Chess period, issues that ultimately forced her out of the spotlight for nearly 10 years. She resurfaced in the late-1980s with a string of well-received appearances, and in 1989 released the critically acclaimed Seven Year Itch on Island Records.
The far-reaching legacy of James
In all, James’ 50-year career is marked with dizzying career highs and lows but her legacy will primarily be her number “At Last.” The inspirational love anthem has transcended the genre, and remains a mainstay in weddings and television commercials. It was to the strains of “At Last” (sung by pop-R&B diva Beyoncé) that U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama danced at their first inaugural ball in 2008.
The superlative vocal ability and sound of James influenced numerous musicians crossing genres of blues, rock and jazz. James is said to have influenced names like Bonnie Raitt, Janis Joplin, Diana Ross and more recently U.K. soul sensation Adele.
In her later years, James struggled with a number of health issues, including kidney problems and early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. In 2010, James entered a hospital for a severe MRSA infection; in early 2011, she was diagnosed with leukemia and the illness become terminal by the end of the year. It was at the age of 73 when James succumbed to the disease, passing away just five days shy of her birthday.
“At Last” is ultimately Etta James’ legacy and so be it. In all, it’s no small feat to be ranked No. 22 by Rolling Stone magazine on their list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. Indeed, the late James will forever be known as a transformative force in how soul music is perceived and accepted today.
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Ryan B. Patrick
on Mar 13, 2012