The matriarch of the blues, Etta James, whose iconic songs include At Last, and Something’s Got A Hold On Me, has died in southern California.
Her manager, Lupe De Leon, said the singer died early Friday at Riverside Community Hospital in Los Angeles. She was 73. De Leon said the cause of death was complications of leukemia.
“It’s a tremendous loss for her fans around the world,” De Leon said. “She’ll be missed. A great American singer. Her music defied category.”
“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, U.S. President Barack 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.”