Etta James, the fiery blues singer known best for her uncharacteristically sweet ballad "At Last," died Friday morning in Riverside, Calif., after a long battle with chronic leukemia. She was 73.
One of the first women inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, James began her career in 1954, at the age of 15, with her group The Creolettes and the racy-for-its-time hit "Roll With Me Henry." Her bold delivery and powerful voice quickly separated her from the crowd, as did her groundbreaking choice of material, leading Atlantic Records' producer Jerry Wexler to call her "the greatest of all modern blues singers."
"This is a tremendous loss for the family, her friends and fans around the world," longtime friend and manager Lupe De Leon told CNN. "She was a true original who could sing it all -- her music defied category."
James, born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles on Jan. 25, 1938, was tough-talking and forward in her music -- scoring hits with "Good Rockin' Daddy" and "I Just Wanna Make Love to You" and "W.O.M.A.N.," an answer song to Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man." But there was also an ache in her voice, even before her very public battle with heroin addiction in the '60s and '70s, that showed she wasn't invincible, especially in "All I Could Do Was Cry" and in her interpretations of such classics as "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "My Funny Valentine."
"Music was thunder and joy, lightning bolts of happiness and praise, foot-stomping, dance-shouting, good-feeling singing from the soul," James wrote in her autobiography, "Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story." "I was also lucky to have the lungs to keep up with these bad boys. When it came to singing, I was no shrinking violet."
There has been a surge in interest in James' music in recent years, following Beyoncé's portrayal of her in the movie "Cadillac Records" in 2008 and after Beyoncé sang "At Last" for Barack and Michelle Obama's first dance after his inauguration in 2009, pushing James' version of the song back onto the pop charts.
On the recent season of "The X Factor," teenage singer Rachel Crow chose James' wrenching "I'd Rather Go Blind" as her theme, while the year's biggest star, Adele, has called James "her favorite singer ever."
"Everything she sings -- you believe her, even if she never wrote a word of it herself," Adele told The Observer. "I saw her live in New York not so long ago: extraordinary. There she was, at the age of 71, singing, 'I want to ta ta you, baby.' . . . She just has so much attitude."
James, who died at Riverside Community Hospital, retired from recording in 2011, after releasing her final album "The Dreamer" in November, featuring her hard-hitting takes on everything from Otis Redding's "Cigarettes and Coffee" to Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle."
"I wish to thank all my fans who have shown me love and support over all these years," James said in a statement accompanying the album's release. "I love you all."
She is survived by her husband, Artis Mills; two sons, Donto and Sametto, who played in James' backing band; and four grandchildren.
Accolades for Etta James
Etta James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
James won a 1994 Grammy for best jazz vocal performance for "Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday."
She won a Grammy in 2003 for best contemporary blues album for "Let's Roll," as well as a special Grammy for lifetime achievement.
She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003.
In 2004, James picked up another Grammy for best traditional blues album for "Blues to the Bone."