Legendary blues singer Etta James dies in Calif.
FILE - This Nov. 24, 2008 file photo Etta James arrives at the premiere of "Cadillac Records" in Los Angeles. James, the feisty rhythm and blues singer whose raw, passionate vocals anchored many hits and made the yearning ballad "At Last" an enduring anthem for weddings, commercials and even President Barack Obama, died Friday, Jan. 20, 2012. She was 73. James had been suffering from dementia and kidney problems, and was battling leukemia. In December 2011, her physician announced that her leukemia was terminal. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Etta James' performance of the enduring classic "At Last" was the embodiment of refined soul: Angelic-sounding strings harkened the arrival of her passionate yet measured vocals as she sang tenderly about a love finally realized after a long and patient wait.
In real life, little about James was as genteel as that song. The platinum blonde's first hit was a saucy R&B number about sex, and she was known as a hell-raiser who had tempestuous relationships with her family, her men and the music industry. Then she spent years battling a drug addiction that she admitted sapped away at her great talents.
The 73-year-old died on Friday at Riverside Community Hospital from complications of leukemia, with her husband and sons at her side, her manager, Lupe De Leon said.
"It's a tremendous loss for her fans around the world," he said. "She'll be missed. A great American singer. Her music defied category."
James' spirit could not be contained — perhaps that's what made her so magnetic in music; it is surely what made her so dynamic as one of R&B, blues and rock 'n' roll's underrated legends.
"The bad girls ... had the look that I liked," she wrote in her 1995 autobiography, "Rage to Survive." ''I wanted to be rare, I wanted to be noticed, I wanted to be exotic as a Cotton Club chorus girl, and I wanted to be obvious as the most flamboyant hooker on the street. I just wanted to be."
In this, April 6, 1987, photo, singer Etta James performs at the Vine St. Bar & Grill in Hollywood, Calif. The singer's manager says Etta James has died in Southern California. Lupe De Leon tells The Associated Press the singer died early Friday, Jan. 20, 2012 at Riverside Community Hospital. De Leon says the cause of death is complications of leukemia. (AP PhotoAlison Wise)
"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, President Obama and the first lady danced to a version at his inauguration ball.