Etta James, a pioneering US blues and soul singer who became a music legend with hits like “At Last” and “Tell Mama”, has died at the age of 73 from cancer. She would have turned 74 on Wednesday.
Lupe De Leon, the singer’s manager, announced James’ death on Friday, saying that she had passed away early in the morning at Riverside Community Hospital in Southern California, with her husband and sons at her side.
James had been suffering from dementia, kidney problems and diabetes, and in December 2011, her physician announced that her leukemia was terminal, and asked for prayers for the singer.
“It’s a tremendous loss for her fans around the world,” De Leon said. “She’ll be missed. A great American singer. Her music defied category.”
The singer was discovered at age 15, when she would sing on street corners in the Northern California city of San Francisco, by bandleader Johnny Otis.
James forged her mother’s signature in order to go to Los Angeles with Otis for a recording session, and after her 1955 debut, she toured with Otis’ revue.
She soon scored her first hit when she was just a teenager with the suggestive “Roll With Me, Henry”, which had to be changed to “The Wallflower” in order to get airplay.
Over the years, she would notch many more hits, carving a niche for herself with her husky, soulful voice and a sassy attitude, which permeated her songs.
Throughout her career, James suffered through drug addictions, but managed to return to the stage each time.
She toured into the 2000s, and her famed “At Last” was sung by Beyonce as the first couple’s dance song on the eve of US President Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration.
James’ accolades include a 1993 induction into the Rock Hall of Fame in 1993, Grammy awards in 1994, 2003 and 2004, and was also given a special lifetime achievement award from the Grammys that coincided with the dedication of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003.
Otis, credited with discovering James as well as other well known artists of the era like Little Richard and Hank Ballard, died on Tuesday, aged 90, in Los Angeles.