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."
Younger artists who were influenced by her sound were soon tweeting their tributes.
"Showing respect appreciation and love for all the wonderful music and joy #ettajames brought to the world ... #ettajamesforever," Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am said on Twitter.
British pop singer Jessie J said thanks in her tweet: "Thank you for your voice, your dedication to us and your gift. Your voice is timeless and will forever live on. I will always look to you for inspiration. R.I.P."
A raw, sexual and larger-than-life figure, the performer fought drug addiction for more than 20 years. In her five-decades long career, James had several professional deaths and resurrections.
"I sing the songs that people want to hear," she once said.
The 'songs people want to hear'
Though the ballad At Last became her signature, James racked up a host of hit songs over her career, including:
- The Wallflower (Roll With Me, Henry)
- Trust In Me
- Something's Got a Hold On Me
- Sunday Kind of Love
- All I Could Do Was Cry
- Tell Mama
- If I Can't Have You
- Good Rockin' Daddy
- My Dearest Darling
- Don't Cry Baby
- Stop The Wedding
- Loving You More Every Day
"For my money, Etta's one of the pioneers," wrote the late Atlantic Records' producer Jerry Wexler in the 1992 book Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music. Wexler — who collaborated with some of the biggest names in music including Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett and Bob Dylan — produced two of James's albums.
"Like Aretha [Franklin], Etta is a church in herself, her voice a mighty instrument, her musical personality able to express an extraordinary range of moods."
In January 2009, she battled a superbug blood infection. She was being treated at the time for an addiction to painkillers, according to her son Donto James, but then contracted the infection.
James was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in late 2008, which was kept under wraps for some time. Her son says the illness caused her to lash out at Beyoncé Knowles, who performed At Last at the inaugural ball of U.S. President Barack Obama in January 2009. Knowles also portrayed James in the 2008 movie Cadillac Records.
At the time, James said she "didn't care for Beyoncé," but her son says his mother was upset because her various ailments had prevented her from being booked for the historic event.
Born to a teen mother
Born Jan. 25, 1938 in Los Angeles to a 14-year-old mother, James, whose real name is Jamesetta Hawkins, never knew her father, but her mother did divulge that her father was a white man.
By the time she was five, she was already performing on the radio with a Los Angeles Baptist church choir. That period of her life would remain a favourite memory.
"The only time that I am really truly happy — when I feel at my best — is when I'm on the stage," James revealed. "I am that little girl who, when she was five years old, used to sing at church."
Discovered at age 14 by bandleader Johnny Otis, she was invited with her two friends, who had dubbed themselves The Peaches, to record the song The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry), released in 1955. It hit No. 1 on the R&B chart and launched the young singer's career. James later parted ways with her singing partners.
Dubbed Miss Peaches, she was soon on tour with the likes of Little Richard, Marvin Gaye and Bo Diddley, but true success would elude her until she signed with Chess Records in 1960.
After that, her career soared with big hits including Spoonful, If I Can't Have You, All I Could Do Is Cry and My Dearest Darling. Her 1961 release included her signature song At Last as well as covers of classics such as I Just Want To Make Love To You and A Sunday Kind of Love.
James' hits continued her winning streak in the early 1960s with Something's Got a Hold on Me, Payback and Baby What You Want Me to Do.
Her success though was tempered by a growing addiction to heroin. She stopped recording between 1964 and 1966 and for much of the early '70s, she was not performing at all. In 1966 she did manage to record the blues classic, Call My Name.
She married Artis Mills in 1969. Both she and her husband were arrested for heroin possession in 1972. He ended up being sentenced to 10 years in prison. In 1974, the singer was sent to drug rehabilitation instead of serving time behind bars. She reunited with Mills when he was released in 1982.
However, James's abuse of drugs continued and in 1988, at age 50, she entered the Betty Ford Center in Palm Springs. Since that treatment, she had claimed to be drug-free.
In 1973, James released a self-titled album, a pioneering blend of soul, blues, jazz and rock. It was nominated for a Grammy award the following year.
She had a comeback in 1978, releasing her two final albums with Chess (Etta Is Betta Than Evah and Deep in the Night) and was the opening act for several of The Rolling Stones concerts in the U.S.
Returns with rap song
By the 1980s, James had dropped out of sight with no recording contract.
In 1989, she experienced another rebirth by signing with Island Records and releasing two albums. James recorded a hip-hop dance single Droppin Rhymes on Drums with rap artist Def Jef. It became a hip-hop classic.
With her comeback cemented, James did well through the 1990s.
In 1993, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One year later, she got her first Grammy award for best Jazz Vocal Performance for Mystery Lady (Songs of Billie Holiday).
In 1995, the singer co-wrote her autobiography with David Ritz, A Rage to Survive, in which she says she suspects her father was pool legend, Minnesota Fats.
"My heart told me that Minnesota Fats was my father. There was also evidence to back me up. But [in the 1970s] ... I didn't have the courage or means to confront him," James wrote in her autobiography.
Accolades in later life
The honours came marching in after 2000, with James being inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001, and a year later, she was handed a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement
In 2003, she was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Two of her songs, At Last and The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry), were also given places in the hall.
She captured yet another Grammy in 2005 for Best Contemporary Blues Album for Let's Roll.
Throughout the 1990s and right up until 2008, James performed at concerts and festivals and was a regular at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.
"A woman can sing just as strong songs," she told the New York Times in 1988. "She can be just as raunchy and just as weak. And I like the whole challenge of a woman standing up there and telling a man where to get off."
James is survived by her husband and her two sons, Donto and Sametto, both music producers, who were with her when she died.