Saturday, December 16, 2017
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Legendary blues singer Etta James, who made At Last a classic, dies at 73

Despite possessing an angel-endorsed voice that could bring the toughest of men to their wobbly knees, Etta James was no "shrinking violet," thank you very much. As the story goes, you didn't mess with the "Matriarch of R&B," who died Friday at age 73 in Riverside, Calif.

She was ultimately felled by leukemia, but that might be the only thing that could defeat the moxieful wailer of At Last.

One of the first women inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — and the 22nd best singer of all time according to Rolling Stone — the Los Angeles-born Jamesetta Hawkins was hardened by a lifetime of highs (recording the devastatingly gorgeous I'd Rather Go Blind) and lows (drug addiction and a weight struggle that once had her at a reported 400 pounds).

And yet it was her endurance — her ability to survive the very blues she was singing about, to stand tall in the boys' club of R&B in the '50s and '60s — that made the woman nicknamed "Miss Peaches" so influential. She was especially beloved by such modern belters as Christina Aguilera, Amy Winehouse and Adele. Beyonce portrayed her in Cadillac Records, the 2008 biopic about Chess Records, Mrs. James' first notable record label, and its star-packed roster of talent, which included Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf and Chuck Berry.

"When she effortlessly opened her mouth, you could hear her pain and triumph," said Beyonce in a message on her website. "Her deeply emotional way of delivering a song told her story with no filter. She was fearless, and had guts. She will be missed."

And it's not just today's pop gals who look to the Book of James for inspiration: Carol City rapper Flo Rida sampled Something's Got a Hold on Me for his current smash Good Feeling.

The multiple Grammy winner honed her young chops singing in a South Central Los Angeles church, but she was discovered in San Francisco in 1950 by none other than Johnny Otis, singer of Willie and the Hand Jive, who, in an odd rock 'n' roll coincidence, also died this week. Otis was 90.

Mrs. James' voice, so pure yet so flammable, would take on wear over all those dramatic years, and yet her phrasing was so innately power-packed she was able to shape-shift from R&B to soul to jazz to rock without awkwardness. Case in point: Check out her 2011 cover of Guns N' Roses' Welcome to the Jungle.

Mrs. James charted a slew of singles over her career — including The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry) and All I Could Do Was Cry — and yet her sturdiest legacy is At Last, a 1941 song originally recorded by Glenn Miller but forever solidified as a wedding special by Mrs. James in 1960 for Chess. The song has since been covered by hundreds of notables, including Cyndi Lauper, Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder and Stevie Nicks.

In fact, there is seemingly no pop-culture moment that can't benefit from a good blast of At Last, including Fox's broadcast of the Boston Red Sox winning the 2004 World Series, and Beyonce performing it for President Barack Obama's 2009 inaugural parties. And don't forget a pivotal scene in teen-sex romp American Pie. You might think that's crass, but Miss Peaches, who once considered it a compliment when someone dubbed her "vulgar," no doubt loved it.

Information from Times wires was used in this report. Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.

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