Etta James dies at 73
Etta James, one of the great voices of the 20th century who fused R&B with gospel and blues, and scored landmark hits with "At Last," "Tell Mama" and "All I Could Do Was Cry," died today from complications related to leukemia. She was 73. James had been battling health problems for many years.
James had an enormously turbulent personal life with numerous periods of drug addiction and poverty, but she channeled all of that heartache into her music.
Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938, James was largely abandoned by her teenage mother at a young age, and was raised by her grandparents and foster families. She formed the the doo-wop singing group Creolettes with her friends in the early 1950s, and they even scored a minor hit with "Roll Me Henry" in 1955.
James signed as a solo act to Chess Records in 1960, kicking off the first great period of her long career. Working with producers Harvey Fuqua and Ralph Bass, she landed on the charts with "My Dearest Darling" and "All I Could Do Is Cry." Leonard Chess heard tremendous potential in her voice, and in 1961 had her record the ballad "At Last" with a string section. The song became a massive hit, and remained her signature song for the rest of her career.
Despite her incredible success, James started to use heroin in the mid-1960s and it began to have serious effects on her career. At various points she was committed to a Los Angeles psychiatric hospital, though she still occasionally scored hits – most notable the R&B classic "Tell Mama" in 1967.
In 1997, James spoke with Rolling Stone about her life. "Life's been rough," she said. "But life's been good. If I had to go back and do it all over again, I would live it the exact same way."