There are probably 25 or 50 Great American songs making up the American songbook. These songs are uniquely American and iconic in some way. Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” is one of those songs. Miles Davis’ “So What” is another. Etta James’ “At Last” also belongs in our songbook.
Etta James, one of the great voices of the 20th century, who fused R&B with gospel and blues and scored landmark hits with “At Last,” “Tell Mama” and “All I Could Do Was Cry,” died today from complications related to leukemia. She was 73. James had been battling health problems for years.
James had an enormously turbulent personal life with numerous periods of drug addiction and poverty, but she channeled all of that heartache into her music. “There’s a lot going on Etta James’ voice,” Bonnie Raitt told Rolling Stone in 2008. “A lot of pain, a lot of life, and most of all, a lot of strength. She can be so raucous and down one song, and then break your heart with her subtlety and finesse the next. As raw as Etta is, there’s a great intelligence and wisdom in her singing.”
Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938, James was largely abandoned by her teenage mother at a young age, and was raised by her grandparents and foster families. She formed the the doo-wop singing group the Creolettes with her friends in the early 1950s, and they scored a minor hit with “Roll Me Henry” in 1955.