A Voice of Gold, a Life of Pain: Etta James, 1938-2012

From her potent R&B singles as a teenager to the immortal ballad "At Last," and for another half-century, this pop-blues diva endured a life more wrenching than any of her songs

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Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Blues singer Etta James

“At last, / My love has come along. / My lonely days are over/ And life is like a song.”

Etta James sang professionally nearly her whole life, and could stock a long shelf full of memorable records: gritty blues songs in the 1950s, hits in a broad range of styles in the ’60s. But “At Last,” the soaring ballad she first committed to wax in 1960, was her signature number, the one that followed her like a sweet lost child for a half-century. It secured her niche in 1993 as the third solo female singer voted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, after Janis Joplin and LaVern Baker. She could be heard singing her anthem in movies (Rain Man, Pleasantville, American Pie) and on The Simpsons. In April 2009 she showed how it could still be sung on Dancing With the Stars. And three years ago today, on his first evening as President, Barack Obama cuddled up to Michelle and danced to the tune at each of their 10 Inaugural Balls.

(MORE: Etta James in Pictures, 1938-2012)

But the woman chosen to sing “At Last” for the Obamas was Beyoncé Knowles, who, the year before, had played the role of Etta James in the musical bio-pic Cadillac Records. That White House snub hurt the real Etta James, and unleashed a temper almost as legendary as her vocal artistry. Not long after the Inauguration, the furious James told a Seattle audience, “You know, your President, the one with the big ears—he ain’t my President—that woman he had singing for him, singing my song—she’s going to get her ass whipped!”

In 73 years of achievement and heartache, which ended today in a Riverside, Cal., hospital after long sieges of leukemia and dementia, Etta James saw love come along and walk away. On lonely days her sole companion was often heroin. And her life was a song, all right: the dirty lowdown blues.

(MORE: the all-TIME 100 Songs list)

Blues is the music of the church and the roadhouse, sanctity and sin; and this soul survivor sang with intimate knowledge of both. “”I had two mothers, two childhoods, lived two different lives in two different cities,” she says in David Ritz’s exemplary first-person biography Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story. “Maybe that’s why I became two different people. The first one was Jamesetta.” She was born Jamesetta Hawkins to 14-year-old Dorothy, who never identified the father. Years later, the light-skinned James was told, and believed, that Rudy Wanderone, the Swiss-American pool hustler known as Minnesota Fats, was her father.

Dorothy did not possess a maternal disposition; she would disappear with some new beau for months at a time. Caring for the child fell to her aunt and uncle, Cozetta and James, for whom she was named; at times they would sneak the infant into hotels “and put me to sleep in a drawer.” Jamesetta found stability and love from another couple, Jesse Rogers and his wife Lula. “I called her Mama,” James says in the book. “She was the woman who wound up raising me while Dorothy ran in and out of my life like a crazy nightmare.”

Jamesetta was just five, in 1943, when she found her vocation, religion and lifeline. Professor James Earle Hines, musical director of the Echoes of Eden Choir at Saint Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles, heard the child sing: “this chubby little Jamesetta,” as James describes herself, “with her high-yellow complexion and her light-colored Shirley Temple curls cascading down below her waist.” Soon enough, she says, “Word got out that a girlchild in the St. Paul Baptist could sing like a full-grown woman, with grown-up feelings and strength.” The church pastor, Rev. Branham, asked his flock, “Have you ever heard a child sing like this? Is she blessed? Is God a miracle worker?” She was a local sensation, but Dorothy never came to hear her.

From Professor Hines, Jamesetta learned not just vocal technique but the reason for singing. “He had one of those great classical gospel voices, a go-tell-it-on-the-mountain voice of glass-shattering force and hell-to-heaven range.” In awe of and in homage of her mentor, the bright child naturally imitated his style: “Didn’t make no difference that Professor Hines was a man. I didn’t know any better but to imitate a man.” He taught her to sing from her gut, not her throat. “Vocal variety—that’s what I learned at the tender age of five—vocal fire. Sing like your life depends on it. Well, turns out mine did.”

In 1950, when Mama Lu Rogers died, Dorothy took Jamesetta to live in San Francisco. Just entering her teens, the girl formed a vocal trio called the Creolettes, for the singers’ light skin. While performing back in Los Angeles, they met the R&B impresario Johnny Otis (who died Tuesday, also in L.A., at the age of 90). Changing the group’s name to The Peaches, and Jamesetta’s to Etta James, Otis signed the girls to Modern Records and produced an answer song to Hank Ballard’s raunchy blues hit “Work With Me Annie.” Officially titled “The Wallflower,” but known for its chorus “Roll With Me Henry,” the record landed The Peaches at the top of the “race” charts in early 1955. (Georgia Gibbs had a milder version that scored on the pop charts; music was still largely segregated, but that would change within the year, as Fats Domino and Little Richard broke through as the idols of white kids too.)

(MORE: see Corliss’ memorial tribute to Johnny Otis)

The early records display James’ vocal passion in its weird precocity. She doesn’t sound like a teen; her voice carries the remembered pain of a strong woman, an enslaved people. Billed as Etta “Miss Peaches” James on “Tough Lover” (recorded at the New Orleans studio where Domino and Richard cut their primal sides), she emits growls that explode into whoops. Numbers like “Good Rockin’ Daddy” and “W.O.M.A.N.”, to which James lent her authoritative eroticism, were too raw to cross over into pop; they would have been seized by the cultural Border Patrol. The fact remains that, while many African-American singers were being embraced by both black and white listeners, James was still making race music—as if she were a ballplayer stuck in the Negro Leagues years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

When her Modern contract expired, James moved to Chicago’s Chess Records, owned by Leonard Chess (inspiration for the character played by Adrian Brody in Cadillac Records). First she performed duets with her man of the moment, Harvey Fuqua, founder and lead singer of the seminal doo-wop group The Moonglows. Etta & Harvey’s “If I Can’t Have You” is a simultaneous orgasm in the making (“The way you hug me… squeeze me … kiss me”) and a showcase for their odd-couple harmonic symbiosis: his slyness, her supernal power.

Finally, James found her indelible solo groove with the album At Last. It featured a wide spectrum of standards: blues testimonies like Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and more lilting tunes like Louis Prima’s “A Sunday Kind of Love”; both would give James enduring singles. But the title song was the lifelong keeper.

Lyricist Mack Gordon and composer Harry Warren, Hollywood’s most prolific hitmaker, had written the number for the 1941 Glenn Miller movie Sun Valley Serenade, but it was held for the following year’s Miller film, Orchestra Wives. Performed as a duet by Lynn Bari (who mouthed the words to Pat Friday’s vocal) and Ray Eberle, the piece has middling-to-good words and a stroke of genius in the opening few bars: Warren flattens “love” (“At last, my love has come along”) from a major to a minor chord. That one note darkens the tone from ecstasy to assonance, from the choir to the blues. Harnessing her vocal in a way that would have made Professor Hines proud, James ran with that poignant tone. The emphasis was no longer on I’ve-just-fallen-in-love but on What-took-so-long?, and Will “at last” last?

An abandoned child has to be suspicious of success when she reaches womanhood. James paid for her stardom, and severely tested her talent, by becoming a drunk and a drug addict. In the mid-’60s she was detoxing at the U.S.C. County Hospital, and served a bunch of 90-day “under the influence” sentences at Sybil Brand, the women’s prison in L.A. When released, she would flop on friends’ couches. As she tried to sleep off the drugs, she would hear the whispers, “That’s Etta James on our couch… Etta James, the singer… oh yeah, everyone knows she’s a junkie.” She married Artis Mills in 1969; when they were arrested together on a heroin possession charge, Mills took the rap and served 10 years in jail.

By the early ’70s she was back at Chess Records—this time behind a desk, promoting other singers’ singles. Leonard Chess paid her $170 a week, plus $50 for her methadone. In 1973 she got a Christmas-New Year’s gig at the Burning Spear in Chicago. “I’d sing some old blues and some new R&B,” she recalled in A Rage to Survive. “I’d sing my heart out and afterward I’d look for the dopeman and come back to the hotel to crash.” As her vagabond mother Dorothy had taken Jamesetta in when Mama Lu died, she now cared for James’s and Mills’ son Donto. The singer was doing time at New York City’s Riker’s Island.

No blues song can last forever, and in her 50s and 60s James, started piling up the career accolades: not just admission to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It helped that she was still singing magnificently, on her 1989 proto-blues album The Seven Year Itch and the deftly jazzy Mystery Lady, a tribute to Billie Holiday. She won a Grammy for lifetime achievement in 2003 and a Best Contemporary Blues Album statuette for her final CD, Let’s Roll, in 2005. Connoisseurs noted her significance as a crucial bridge between Bessie Smith and Holiday before her and the glam generation of Mariahs and Christinas that followed. Adele, the platinum-selling blues-pop vocalist, has cited James as her favorite singer. “Le7els,” the current chart-topping pastiche by Avicil, samples James’ rendition of “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.”

Yet James’ troubles lasted almost to the end of her life—longer, in fact, than she knew. As she slipped into dementia, and leukemia gnawed at her, a dispute rose between her husband Artis and their sons Donto and Sametto, both of whom had played in James’s touring band. The sons sued the father for trusteeship of the singer’s approximately $1 million estate, much of which was funneled into her medical bills. The suit was resolved last month, when James was long past understanding its import.

At her passing, we have to recall Pastor Branham’s rhetorical questions, back when Etta James was Jamesetta Hawkins. Have you ever heard a woman sing like this? Lord, no. Was her life blessed? God, no. A voice that profoundly touched its listeners is silent; a life that rose to the highest accomplishments and sank to the saddest depths is over. And Jamesetta has found her rest. At last.

(MORE: Corliss’ review of Cadillac Records)