LOS ANGELES (AP) – Etta James’ performance of the enduring classic “At Last” was the embodiment of refined soul: Angelic-sounding strings harkened the arrival of her passionate yet measured vocals as she sang tenderly about a love finally realized after a long and patient wait.
In real life, little about James was as genteel as that song. The platinum blonde’s first hit was a saucy R&B number about sex, and she was known as a hell-raiser who had tempestuous relationships with her family, her men and the music industry. Then she spent years battling a drug addiction that she admitted sapped away at her great talents.
In other words, she was one of music’s original bad girls.
“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, and I wanted to be obvious as the most flamboyant hooker on the street. I just wanted to be.”
James’ spirit could not be contained – perhaps that’s what made her so magnetic in music; it is surely what made her so dynamic as one of R&B, blues and rock `n’ roll’s underrated legends. The 73-year-old died at Riverside Community Hospital, with her husband and sons at her side, De Leon said.
“It’s a tremendous loss for her fans around the world,” he said. “She’ll be missed. A great American singer. Her music defied category.”
Recently her health went into decline, and by 2011, she was being cared for at home by a personal doctor.
She suffered from dementia, kidney problems and leukemia. Her husband and her two sons fought over control of her $1 million estate, though a deal was later struck keeping Mills as the conservator and capping the singer’s expenses at $350,000. In December 2011, her physician announced that her leukemia was terminal, and asked for prayers for the singer.