Tempestuous R&B diva Etta James, whose hits of the ’50s and ’60s included the evergreen “At Last,” has died. She was 73.
CNN reported Friday that the singer succumbed to leukemia at a hospital in Riverside, Calif.
James, who logged a professional career of more than half a century, was a gale-force singer and the top female hitmaker at Chicago indie Chess Records. While her career was repeatedly knocked off track by drug and health problems, the 1993 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee recorded and toured profitably into the new millennium.
Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles to an unwed 14-year-old mother (and, James claimed repeatedly, pool hustler Minnesota Fats), she grew up singing in L.A. churches.
As a teenager in San Francisco, she formed a female doo-wop group, the Peaches (whose moniker begat James’ nickname). The trio was discovered by R&B bandleader Johnny Otis, who took them into an L.A. studio to record “The Wallflower,” aka “Dance With Me Henry,” an answer song to Hank Ballard & the Midnighters’ lubricious 1954 hit “Work With Me Annie.” The tune rose to No. 1 nationally.
After a few years of unsuccessful solo work at Modern Records, James’ contract was purchased by Chess, where she began a close professional and personal relationship with Harvey Fuqua, leader of the Moonglows and a top cleffer and A&R man at the label.
She stepped out in 1960 with the No. 2 ballad “All I Could Do Was Cry,” and her powerful quicksilver voice was heard to good advantage on such duets with Fuqua as “If I Can’t Have You” (No. 6, 1960).
Fuqua also encouraged her to cut standards, leading to the lush, string-laden No. 2 1961 version of the 1941 Harry Warren-Mack Gordon composition “At Last,” which has maintained enduring popularity thanks to commercial and movie soundtrack use.
James’ other hits of the early ’60s included the growling “Something’s Got a Hold On Me” (No. 4, 1962), “Stop the Wedding” (No. 6, 1962), “Pushover” (No. 7, 1963) and “Loving You More Every Day” (No. 7, 1964). While it fared no better than No. 37 nationally, “In the Basement,” her raucous 1966 duet with friend and label mate Sugarpie DeSanto, later became a cult R&B item.
Chess lit a renewed fire under James’ career in 1967, when the label dispatched her to Rick Hall’s hot studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala.,, for sessions. The date spawned the up-tempo soul scorcher “Tell Mama” (No. 10 on the R&B chart that year), a version of Otis Redding’s “Security” (No. 11, 1968) and the unforgettable ballad “I’d Rather Go Blind.”
After the 1969 sale of Chess to GRT and Leonard Chess’ subsequent death, James’ career began to falter, though such memorable tracks as her covers of David Houston’s country hit “Almost Persuaded,” the Falcons’ “I Found a Love” and Randy Newman’s perverse “You Can Leave Your Hat On” scraped the bottom of the R&B charts. She loyally stayed on at the label until the late ’70s.
In 1975, Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler, an outspoken admirer, produced a Chess session for James. Wexler later helmed two much admired albums for the singer, “Deep in the Night” (1978) and “The Right Time” (1992).
Her final R&B hit came in 1978: a Wexler-produced cover of “Piece of My Heart,” popularized in 1967 by Big Brother & the Holding Co.’s singer Janis Joplin, whose vocal attack owed an abiding debt to James.
James maintained her career during the ’70s as her personal life fell into disarray. Busted in 1973 for heroin possession with her husband, Artis Mills (who was convicted and served time in prison), she spent 17 months in court-ordered rehab at Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital. (Though she successfully kicked heroin, she was hospitalized again at the Betty Ford Center in the ’80s for addiction to prescription painkillers.)
After brief associations with Warner Bros., Island, and Asylum, James experienced a career renewal in the ’90s at indie Private Music. Her 1993 Billie Holiday recital “Mystery Lady” earned her the first of three Grammy Awards in the best jazz vocal category. She won a second Grammy, for contemporary blues album, with the Private release “Let’s Roll” in 2004; after segueing to RCA, she won the traditional blues album Grammy in 2005 for “Blues to the Bone.” She received a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2003.
James published her candid and unsparing autobiography “A Rage to Survive,” co-authored by David Ritz, in 1998. In 2008, she was portrayed by Beyonce Knowles in the grotesquely fictionalized feature “Cadillac Records”; James took a much-reported swipe at Knowles after the young singer performed “At Last” at Barack Obama’s 2009 presidential inauguration.
She issued her last album, “The Dreamer,” on Verve Forecast in 2011. Universal’s Hip-O Select catalog unit released a comprehensive anthology, “Heart and Soul,” late that year.
Health problems would plague James in later years. She appeared on stage in a wheelchair until gastric bypass surgery in 2003 reduced her excessive weight. She was hospitalized in early 2010 for a serious infection; at that time, her son Donto James told the press she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
She is survived by her husband, Artis, and two sons.