Etta James, whose version of the 1941 standard “At Last” is one of the most popular recordings of all time, died today from complications due to leukemia. She was 73. She passed away just three days after bandleader Johnny Otis, who discovered her, passed away.
Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, she was raised by an almost absentee mother who told the young girl that her father was the famous pool player Minnesota Fats. Years later she met him but he never admitted or denied being her father. Due to her mother’s many problems James was mostly raised by Lula and Jesse Rogers, family friends who owned a rooming house her mother used to live in.
She was performing in a female group known as the Peaches when Otis spotted her, advising her to rearrange her first name and become Etta James. The two co-wrote the hit “Roll With Me, Henry,” which was a reply to the popular Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ hit, “Work With Me, Annie.” Her first “big” song was the ballad “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which was later covered by such singers as Rod Stewart, B.B. King and Beyonce’, who sang it while portraying James in the film “Cadillac Records.”
In 1960 she signed with Chess Records and released her debut album, “At Last!,” at the end of the year. In 1961 the title track was released as a single, reaching #2 on the Rhythm and Blues chart and #47 on the Billboard Hot 100. “At Last” would become her signature song. She stayed with Chess Records until 1978. In 1993 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, becoming one of only thirteen women inducted as a solo performer.