James, died on Friday morning at a hospital in Riverside, east of Los Angeles, of complications from leukemia, said her manager, Lupe De Leon. She would have turned 74 on Wednesday.
“She passed away this morning. She was with her husband and her sons,” said De Leon, James’s friend of 30 years.
James was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago and had been in failing health for a number of years.
Her live-in doctor said in December that she was terminally ill with leukemia. James also suffered from diabetes, kidney problems and dementia and was hospitalized late last year because she was struggling to breathe.
James was a key figure in the early days of R&B music with hit songs like “The Wallflower” and “Good Rockin’ Daddy”. But it was her 1961 recording of the ballad “At Last” that proved her a master of the blues and put her on the music map.
She had numerous ups-and-downs in her career and personal life. She struggled with obesity and heroin addiction, ran a hot-check scheme and had troubled relationships with men, including some gangsters. Her weight ballooned and in 2003, she underwent gastric bypass surgery and lost more than 200 pounds.
James’ vocals had a mixture of power, pain and emotion. Veteran musical producer Jerry Wexler called her “the greatest of all modern blues singers … the undisputed Earth Mother.”
She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 but throughout her long career she diversified into mainstream blues, soul and R&B.
“Etta James is simply one of the best singers I’ve ever heard,” singer-guitarist Bonnie Raitt wrote in Rolling Stone magazine. “…Etta is earthy and gritty, ribald and out-there in a way that few performers have the guts to be.”
GOSPEL TO GREATNESS
James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles on January 25, 1938, to an unmarried teenage mother who told her that her father was legendary pool shark Rudolph Wanderone, better known as Minnesota Fats. James told CNN she introduced herself to Wanderone in 1987 but was unable to confirm he was her father.
James sang gospel in the church choir and stood out even as a 5-year-old. By 1954, she recorded “Roll With Me Henry” with two other girls in a trio called The Peaches.
The singing group was discovered by bandleader Johnny Otis, who also died this week. Their song, renamed “The Wallflower,” topped R&B charts in 1955. The Peaches split up but James continued recording and later that year “Good Rockin’ Daddy” also hit the charts.
In the 1960s, James signed with Chicago’s legendary Chess Records and songs like “At Last” and “Trust in Me” were backed by orchestras. But she never strayed too far from her gospel roots, as evidenced by 1962’s “Something’s Got a Hold of Me.”
Over the decades, James’ hit R&B charts with 30 singles, and placed nine of those songs in pop music’s top 40. She has often been cited as influencing singers including Tina Turner, Bonnie Raitt and current British singing sensation, Adele.
James won her first Grammy in 1995 for her album, “Mystery Lady: The Songs of Billie Holiday.” She also won Grammys in 2003 and 2005, as well as a lifetime achievement award in 2003 from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which gives out the Grammys.
She is survived by her husband and two sons, Donto and Sametto, who played in James’ backing band.