21 Jan 2012

Blues singer Etta James dies

7:35 am on 21 January 2012

US rhythm-and-blues singer Etta James, known for her hit At Last, has died at age 73.

The singer was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago and had been in failing health for a number of years.

James was a key figure in the early days of R&B music with hit songs like The Wallflower and Good Rockin' Daddy. But it was her 1961 recording of the ballad At Last that proved her a master of the blues and put her on the music map.

Veteran musical producer Jerry Wexler called her "the greatest of all modern blues singers ... the undisputed Earth Mother."

Throughout her long career she diversified into mainstream blues, soul and R&B.

She had numerous ups-and-downs in her career and personal life. She struggled with obesity and heroin addiction and had troubled relationships with men, including some gangsters.

Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938 to an unmarried teenage mother, James sang gospel in the church choir.

By 1954, she recorded Roll With Me Henry with two other girls in a trio called The Peaches.

The singing group was discovered by bandleader Johnny Otis, who also died this week. Their song, renamed The Wallflower, topped R&B charts in 1955.

The Peaches split up but James continued recording and later that year Good Rockin' Daddy also hit the charts.

In the 1960s, James signed with Chicago's legendary Chess Records and songs like At Lastand Trust in Me were backed by orchestras. But she never strayed too far from her gospel roots, as evidenced by 1962's Something's Got a Hold of Me.

James won her first Grammy in 1995 for her album,Mystery Lady: The Songs of Billie Holiday. She also won Grammys in 2003 and 2005, as well as a lifetime achievement award in 2003 from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

She has often been cited as influencing singers including Tina Turner, Bonnie Raitt and current British sining sensation, Adele.

Etta James died on Friday morning at a hospital in Riverside, east of Los Angeles, of complications from leukemia.

She is survived by her husband and two sons, Donto and Sametto, who played in James' backing band.