Etta James, whose signature style vaulted her to the top of her profession as a jazz singer, died today from a series of health complications after battling leukemia for months, her manager said today (Jan. 20). She was 73.
James’ health had been in decline for some time. She battle leukemia and hepatitis C and in recent years suffered from dementia. Her lukemia took a turn for the worse, and her doctor pronounced it terminal two weeks ago.
During her storied career, James won six Grammy awards. A host of musicians, from Diana Ross to modern day singers like Christina Aguilera say James was a major influence on their singing. Beyonce played James in the 2008 film “Cadillac Records.”
James’ manager and longtime friend, Lupe De Leon, said the singer died at Riverside Community Hospital from complications of leukemia. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2009. Her husband, Artis Mills, and her sons were by her side.
“This is a tremendous loss for the family, her friends and fans around the world,” De Leon said. “She was a true original who could sing it all; her music defied category. I worked with Etta for over 30 years. She was my friend and I will miss her always.”
James career blossomed at the dawn of rock ‘n roll and the Motown sound that would come to be known as rhythm and blues. Her first album, At Last!, debuted in 1961, and the title track by the same name became her signature song.
President Obama used it as his theme after his 2008 election victory. James was miffed because Beyonce sang the song at his inaugural ball instead of her. But the feud was short-lived.
Despite her acclaimed voice, it took more than 30 years for her to win her first Grammy in 1994, She was honored for Best Jazz Vocal Performance for the tribute album Mystery Lady (Songs of Billie Holiday).
James’ career was marred by an addiction to heroin in the late ’60s and early ’70s. She and her husband were arrested for drug possession. She entered rehab but never totally kicked her substance abuse. Yet, she always worked. She recorded 27 studio albums, compilations and live recordings.
James, the quintessential rhythm & blues vocalist, released her final studio album, The Dreamer, before retiring from recording last October.
She is survived by sons, Donto and Sametto, both musicians.