It is a risky move for an artist to reinterpret a classic song from a legendary singer, but Christina Aguilera's gospel rendition of Etta James's "At Last" moved those in attendance at James's funeral services Saturday at the Greater Bethany Community Church City of Refuge in Gardena, California.
Aguilera dropped her already deep register a few octaves to belt the song's opening, "At last," prompting shouting and whistling from the congregation. Before Aguilera began singing, she described James as "the one that cut right to my soul."
After the opening, Aguilera's vocals complimented the church organ and piano arrangement. The popular wedding song took on a new direction. The lines "My lonely days are over," "The skies above are blue," and "And here we are in heaven" now felt more spiritual than romantic.
The approving onlookers offered a standing ovation.
In an interview with CNN, Aguilera said she was emotional. "I went through the lyrics last night, and I did rehearsal … and it took on a whole new meaning having been invited by her close friends and family to sing that classic song at her service," she said. "And I started crying every time I started to sing it, and I thought, 'My gosh, what if that happens tomorrow? I just want to do justice to Etta James.' She meant the whole world to me, and it was a huge honor to be here today."
Stevie Wonder also paid his respects. According to reports, he played keyboard and harmonica, sang "The Lord's Prayer" and his song "Shelter in the Rain."
Rev. Al Sharpton read a personal letter from President Obama, and offered the eulogy.
Sharpton acknowledged the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame inductee's contributions to the civil rights movement. "Etta James helped break down the culture curtain of America before the Civil Rights Act of 1964," he said. "She was able to get us to sing the same rhythms and melodies."
He added, "At last, you can find peace now!"
Donto James, James's eldest son, said his mother had a special bond with those who had lost their mothers.
"She'd give them a job like that," he said.
On Friday, hundreds of fans attended a public viewing at the Inglewood Cemetery Mortuary.
The feisty, powerful singer launched her career as a teenager in 1955 with the No. 1 R&B hit, "The Wallflower (Roll With Me, Henry)," a response to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie."
James recorded a number of hit records during her career, including "At Last," "Tell Mama," and "I'd Rather Go Blind."
Beyonce portrayed James in the 2008 film "Cadillac Records."
James died on January 20 from complications from leukemia.