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by Nate Cavalieri

January 20, 2012

Rip | Soul

Etta James, RIP

by Nate Cavalieri  |  January 20, 2012

The legacy of Etta James starts with that bittersweet swell of strings -- the melodic line descending in a languid circle like an autumn leaf, the 19 protracted seconds of building tension -- and ends when the singer's dusky, hell-and-back-again alto intones the two words that announced her musical legacy: "At Last." But if her greatest, most enduring and truly untiring hit is the place where the memorial begins, it would have only half the emotional power if it weren't for James' other musical personas: the suffering bad girl of "Seven Day Fool"; the hell-raising party girl of Rocks the House; the commanding, surefooted stylist of jazz standards like "Misty." Just days before her 74th birthday, James died at a hospital in Riverside, California. She was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010, and also spent her last years struggling with dementia and hepatitis C.

Born in Los Angeles to a 14-year old mother, Jamesetta Hawkins started singing in the Echoes of Eden choir at the St. Paul Baptist Church, and soon moved to San Francisco, where she sang doo-wop and signed her first record deal with the help of Johnny Otis (another vital soul singer who passed this week). Although she scored a couple hits in the mid-'50s after changing her name, it wasn't until she moved to Chicago that James hit her stride on Chess Records, a relationship that began with a backup session on Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA." In the '60s she had a number of her biggest hits with Chess, including "At Last" and "Sunday Kind of Love." Although she faced legal problems, heroin addiction and a number of health problems late in life, she released records steadily throughout; the last of which, The Dreamer, included a cover of Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" and was issued on Verve Forecast last year.

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