|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)|
NEW YORK (AP) — On her last album
"The Dreamer," released just three months before her death, Etta James sings a
mix of covers, from the R&B classic "Misty Blue" to the Ray
Charles song "In the Evening." But perhaps the most curious tune
included on the disc may be the Guns N' Roses staple "Welcome to the
That a 73-year-old icon of R&B
would tackle the frenetic rock song — albeit in a pace more fitting her blues roots
— might seem odd. But the song may be the best representation of James as both a singer and a person — rambunctious in
spirit, with the ability to sing whatever was thrown at her, whether it was
jazz, blues, pining R&B or a song from one of the rowdiest bands in rock.
"She was able to dig so deep in
kind of such a raw and unguarded place when she sang, and that's the power of
gospel and blues and rhythm and blues. She brought that to all those beautiful
standards and rocks songs that she did. All the number of vast albums she
recorded, she covered such a wide variety of material that brought such unique
phrasing and emotional depth," said Bonnie Raitt, a close friend, in an
interview on Friday afternoon after James'
|FILE - In this Sept. 22, 1974, photo, Muhammad Ali plays a few notes on the piano as singer Etta James looks on. 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 Photo/Horst Faas)|
"I think that's what appealed to
people, aside from the fact that her personality on and off the stage was so
huge and irrepressible. She was ribald and raunchy and dignified, classy and
strong and vulnerable all at the same time, which is what us as women really
whose signature song was the sweeping, jazz-tinged torch song "At
Last," died in Riverside, Calif., from complications of leukemia. Her
death came after she struggled with dementia and other health problems, health
issues that kept her from performing for the last two or so years of her life.
It was a life full of struggles. Her
mother was immersed in a criminal life and left her to be raised by friends,
she never knew her true father (though she believed it was billiards great
Minnesota Fats), and she had her own troubles, which included a decades-long
addiction to drugs, turbulent relationships, brushes with the law, and other
One might think all of those problems
would have weighted down James' spirit, and her
voice, layering it with sadness, or despair. While she certainly could channel
depression, anger, and sorrow in song, her voice was defined by its fiery
passion: Far from beaten down, James embodied
the fight of a woman who managed to claw her way back from the brink, again and
|Etta James arrives at the premiere of "Cadillac Records" in Los Angeles on Monday, Nov. 24, 2008. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)|
It's an attitude that influenced her
look as well. Despite the conservative era, she dyed her hair platinum blonde,
sending out the signal that she was far from demure, and owning a brassy, sassy
attitude. She relished her role as saucy singer, a persona that she celebrated
in her private life as well.
"In terms of 1950s rhythm and
blues stars, she had kind of a gutsy attitude and she went out there and did
what she did, and she was kind of bold ... and it had a huge influence,"
said David Ritz, the co-author of her autobiography "Rage to Survive: The Etta James
Story." ''I think her gutsiness and her lack of fear and just her courage
(made her special). ... I believe that made her important and memorable."
Beyonce, who played James in the movie "Cadillac Records" about
Chess Records, also spoke about her influence on other singers.
"I feel like Etta James, first
of all, was the first black woman I saw with platinum, blonde hair. She wore
her leopard and she wore her sexy silhouette and she didn't care. She was strong
and confident and always Etta James," said Beyonce in a 2008 interview.
|Legendary singer Etta James points to her star after an unveiling ceremony on the Walk of Fame Friday, April 18, 2003, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. James' 1960 treatment of the song "At Last" has endured in popularity over the decades. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)|
could often be irascible. Ritz remembers when he was working with her on her
autobiography, touring with her around the country, that one time he approached
her with his tape recorder and she barked: "If see that tape recorder
again I'm going to cram it up your (expletive)."
But at other times, she'd be effusive
and warm and anxious to talk.
"Once she did talk, she was always
candid and unguarded. She was a free spirit," Ritz said.
While Ritz put her in the category of
other greats like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye, she never
enjoyed their mainstream success. Though "At Last" has become an
enduring classic, there were times when James
had to scrounge for work, and while she won Grammys and was inducted into the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she did not have the riches, the multitude of
platinum records or the hits that some of her peers enjoyed.
"She at least enjoyed a great
resurgence like John Lee Hooker did and B.B. King, (and) has had some great
decades of appreciation from new generations around the world," said
Raitt. "There's no one like her. No one will ever replace Etta."
|FILE - In this April 29, 2006 photo, Etta James performs during the 2006 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans. 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/Jeff Christensen)|
And Ritz said the lack of commercial
success does nothing to diminish her greatness, or her legacy.
"Marvin certain knew it and Ray
knew it ... the people who know that she was in that category," he said.
"Whatever the marketplace did or didn't do or whether her lack of career
management didn't do, it has nothing to do with her talent."
And on Friday, the Queen of Soul was
among those who paid tribute to James greatness,
calling her "one of the great soul singers of our generation. An American
"I loved 'Pushover,' 'At Last' and
almost any and everything she recorded! When Etta
SUNG, you heard it!"
AP Entertainment Writer Chris Talbott
and AP Writer Mesfin Fekadu contributed to this report.