Etta James, an icon of mid-century soul and R&B, has passed away in Riverside, Calif., after a long battle with leukemia. She was 73.
Born Jamesetta Hawkins to an unwed 14-year-old mother in Los Angeles in 1938, James began singing in church as a child, and by age 12 had moved to San Francisco, where she formed a doo-wop trio called the Creolettes. Returning to L.A. in 1954, she rechristened the group the Peaches, changed her own name to Etta James, and professionally recorded her first song,”The Wallflower”; a solo recording contract soon followed.
Her 18-year tenure at Chicago’s Chess Records – partly documented in the 2008 film Cadillac Records, in which Beyoncé famously played the singer – led to James’ most fertile period commercially, even as it coincided with her increasingly heavy use of heroin and alcohol.
It was at Chess that she released hits like “Trust in Me,” “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” and the song that would become her signature, “At Last” (though at the time, it peaked at No. 47 on the mainstream pop charts).
In 1978, she left Chess, but after opening a number of high-profile tour dates for the Rolling Stones that same year, she remained largely out of the public eye for the next decade, aside from an appearance at the 1984 Olympic Games opening ceremonies.
The 1990s saw her rising again creatively; she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and recorded a run of albums in a more classic jazz-and-blues vein, including the 1994 tribute Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday. She made the news again in 2009 when she spoke out publicly against both Beyoncé and President Obama, at whose inauguration the younger performer sang “At Last.”
James’ final album, The Dreamer, was released Nov. 8, 2011. On Dec. 16, 2011, it was announced that her leukemia was terminal, and that she was suffering from dementia and Hepatitis C as well. She is survived Artis Mills, her husband of more than 40 years, and her two sons, Donto and Sametto.