Etta James, whose version of “At Last” became a staple for weddings, movies and even presidential inaugurations, died on Friday from complications of leukemia, CNN said. She was 73.
Reaction has been pouring in from around the world. Singer Beyonce, who played Etta James in 2008 film Cadillac Records, called James "one of the greatest vocalists of our time." On her website, Beyonce called James's death "a huge loss."
She was fearless, and had guts. She will be missed," said Beyonce.
"This is a tremendous loss for the family, her friends and fans around the world," her manager, Lupe De Leon, told CNN. "She was a true original who could sing it all – her music defied category. I worked with Etta for over 30 years. She was my friend and I will miss her always."
She died in a California hospital with her husband, Artis Mills, and sons at her side. She would have turned 74 on Jan. 25.
“Me and my brothers were right there,” Donto James told the Los Angeles Times.
Her health had been failing in recent years. She suffered from dementia and kidney failure, the LA Times said. She also battled drug addiction and developed complications from gastric bypass surgery in 2002. Her sons and their stepfather were embroiled in a court case over control of James’s $1-million estate, according to the Times.
Her life, it seemed, was always tumultuous.
James cultivated a reputation that belied her soulful voice, MSNBC reported. A platinum blonde who said she wanted to be “obvious as the most flamboyant hooker on the street,” James battled drug addiction and was known for her love of lascivious lifestyles.
"The bad girls ... had the look that I liked," she wrote in her 1995 autobiography, "Rage to Survive." "I wanted to be rare, I wanted to be noticed, I wanted to be exotic as a Cotton Club chorus girl … I just wanted to be.”
“At Last” wasn’t her first hit, but it was her biggest and most powerful. President Barack Obama and the first lady danced to it during his inauguration.
The song was as tender as James was turbulent. She was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles to an absentee mother; she never met her father, but suspected it was legendary pool player Minnesota Fats.
Her career blossomed in church choirs and singing on the street with friends. She traveled with her mother to San Francisco in 1950 where she formed The Peaches. It was there she met Johnny Otis, who helped James become a star.
But Colgate University professor Michael Coyle, who has written about music for Cadence Magazine, told CNN that James’s career never truly blossomed in the early years. While she was a passionate jazz, soul and blues singer, James never capitalized on the popular music of her time.
"She never really got her moment in the sun," Coyle said.