Singer Etta James dies of leukemia at 93
Legendary singer Etta James died Friday at Riverside Community Hospital in Los Angeles from complications of leukemia, with her husband and sons at her side, her manager, Lupe De Leon said. She was 73.
"It's a tremendous loss for her fans around the world," he said. "She'll be missed. A great American singer. Her music defied category."
James' spirit could not be contained — perhaps that's what made her so magnetic in music; it is surely what made her so dynamic as one of R&B, blues and rock 'n' roll's underrated legends.
"Etta James was a pioneer. Her ever-changing sound has influenced rock and roll, rhythm and blues, pop, soul and jazz artists, marking her place as one of the most important female artists of our time," Rock and Roll Hall of Fame President and CEO Terry Stewart said. "From Janis Joplin to Joss Stone, an incredible number of performers owe their debts to her. There is no mistaking the voice of Etta James, and it will live forever."
Despite the reputation she cultivated, she would always be remembered best for her song At Last. The jazz-inflected rendition wasn't the original, but it would become the most famous and the song that would define her as a legendary singer. Over the decades, brides used it as their song down the aisle and car companies to hawk their wares, and it filtered from one generation to the next through its inclusion in movies like American Pie. Perhaps most famously, President Obama and the first lady danced to a version at his inauguration ball.
The tender, sweet song belied the turmoil in her personal life. James — born Jamesetta Hawkins — was born in Los Angeles to a mother whom she described as a scam artist, a substance abuser and a fleeting presence during her youth. She never knew her father, although she was told and had believed, that he was the famous billiards player Minnesota Fats.
It would take her at least two decades to beat a drug problem that started in the 1960s. Her husband, Artis Mills, even went to prison for years, taking full responsibility for drugs during an arrest even though James was culpable.
She finally quit the habit and managed herself for a while, calling up small clubs and asking them, "Have you ever heard of Etta James?" in order to get gigs. Eventually, she got regular bookings — even drawing Elizabeth Taylor as an audience member. In 1984, she was tapped to sing the national anthem at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and her career got the resurgent boost it needed, though she fought addiction again when she got hooked on painkillers in the late 1980s.
She was inducted into the Rock Hall in 1993, captured a Grammy in 2003 for best contemporary blues album for Let's Roll, one in 2004 for best traditional blues album for Blues to the Bone and one for best jazz vocal performance for 1994's Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday. She was also awarded a special Grammy in 2003 for lifetime achievement and got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Her health went into decline, however, and by 2011, she was being cared for at home by a personal doctor. She suffered from dementia, kidney problems and leukemia. Her husband and her two sons fought over control of her $1 million estate, though a deal was later struck keeping Mills as the conservator and capping the singer's expenses at $350,000. In December 2011, her physician announced that her leukemia was terminal, and asked for prayers for the singer.
In October 2011, it was announced that James was retiring from recording, and a final studio recording, The Dreamer, was released, featuring the singer taking on classic songs, from Bobby "Blue" Bland's Dreamer to Guns N' Roses Welcome To the Jungle.
[Photo: AP, 1993]