LOS ANGELES -- Etta James' performance of the enduring classic "At Last" was the embodiment of refined soul: Angelic-sounding strings harkened the arrival of her passionate yet measured vocals as she sang tenderly about a love finally realized after a long and patient wait.
In real life, little about James was as genteel as that song. The platinum blonde's first hit was a saucy R&B number about sex, and she was known as a hell-raiser who had tempestuous relationships with her family, her men and the music industry. She then spent years battling a drug addiction that she admitted sapped away at her great talents.
James, 73, died on Friday at Riverside Community Hospital from complications of leukemia, with her husband and sons at her side, her manager, Lupe De Leon, said.
"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 was an occasional Las Vegas performer, first singing in the 1950s golden age, and, much later in her career, at the Las Vegas Hilton in 2004 and The Orleans in 2006 and 2007.
"I was so proud when I started to go to Vegas," she recalled of those early days in a 2006 Review-Journal interview.
James was worried that she was "too young and inexperienced to know how to feed a (casino) crowd. They're drinking and gambling. You gotta sing, and they're gonna be busy with the one-arm bandits. But I realized it was really fun."
Her signature song "At Last" has been covered on the Strip in recent years by both Celine Dion and ventriloquist Terry Fator.
INFLUENCED ARTISTS IN SEVERAL GENRES
"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," said Rock and Roll Hall of Fame President and CEO Terry Stewart. "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 "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.
He neither confirmed nor denied it: When they met, he simply told her: "I don't remember everything. I wish I did, but I don't."
She was raised by Lula and Jesse Rogers, who owned the rooming house where her mother once lived in. The pair brought up James in the Christian faith, and as a girl, her voice stood out in the church choir. James landed the solos in the choir and became so well-known, she said that Hollywood stars would come to see her perform.
But she wouldn't stay a gospel singer for long. Rhythm and blues lured her away from the church, and she found herself drawn to the grittiness of the music.
"My mother always wanted me to be a jazz singer, but I always wanted to be raunchy," she recalled in her 1995 autobiography, "Rage to Survive."
She was doing just that when bandleader Johnny Otis found her singing on San Francisco street corners with some girlfriends in the early 1950s. Otis, a legend in his own right, died on Tuesday.
"At the time, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters had a hit with 'Work With Me, Annie,' and we decided to do an answer. We didn't think we would get in show business, we were just running around making up answers to songs," James said in 1987.
And so they replied with the song, "Roll With Me, Henry."
When Otis heard it, he told James to get her mother's permission to accompany him to Los Angeles to make a recording. Instead, the 15-year-old singer forged her mother's name on a note claiming she was 18.
"Roll With Me, Henry," was renamed "Dance With Me, Henry" by Georgia Gibbs, who took it to No. 1 on the pop charts.
After her 1955 debut, James toured with Otis' revue, sometimes earning only $10 a night. In 1959, she signed with Chicago's legendary Chess label, began cranking out the hits and going on tours with performers such as Bobby Vinton, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Everly Brothers.
James recorded a string of hits in the late 1950s and '60s including "Trust In Me," ''Something's Got a Hold On Me," ''Sunday Kind of Love," ''All I Could Do Was Cry," and of course, "At Last."
In 1967, she cut one of the most highly regarded soul albums of all time, "Tell Mama," an earthy fusion of rock and gospel music featuring blistering horn arrangements, funky rhythms and a churchy chorus. A song from the album, "Security," was a top 40 single in 1968.
STRUGGLED WITH DEMONS
Her professional success, however, was balanced against personal demons, namely a drug addiction.
"I was trying to be cool," she said in 1995, explaining what had led her to try heroin.
"I hung out in Harlem and saw Miles Davis and all the jazz cats," she continued. "At one time, my heavy role models were all druggies. Billie Holiday sang so groovy. Is that because she's on drugs? It was in my mind as a young person. I probably thought I was a young Billie Holiday, doing whatever came with that."
She was addicted to the drug for years, starting in 1960, and it led to a harrowing existence that included time behind bars. It sapped her singing abilities and her money, eventually, almost destroying her career.
It would take her at least two decades to beat her drug problem.
Drug addiction wasn't her only problem. She struggled with her weight and often performed from a wheelchair as she got older and heavier. In the early 2000s, she had weight-loss surgery and shed about 200 pounds.
James 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, Artis Mills, 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, her physician announced that her leukemia was terminal .
In October, 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" -- still rocking, and a fitting end to her storied career.
Review-Journal reporter Mike Weatherford contributed to this story. Contact Weatherford at email@example.com or 702-383-0288.