On Friday, "Matriarch of the Blues" Etta James died from complications of leukemia. The 73-year-old singer may best be remembered for her passionate rendition of the torch song "At Last," but her career spanned over 60 years. A foster home runaway, James scored her first hit, "Dance With Me Henry," at age 15, and released her last album, The Dreamers, in 2011. Though praised as a "force of nature" with a "powerhouse" voice, the six-time Grammy winner had a troubled life, weathering numerous drug addictions, hepatitis C, obesity (and then gastric bypass surgery), dementia, and leukemia. Here's how the press and other singers who felt her influence are remembering James:
1. She had an unshakable voice
James "had grit in her voice that could melt like sugar or rub like salt in a wound," says Neda Ulaby at NPR. What was remarkable about it was its range, says Peter Keepnews at The New York Times. Her vocals could "enliven the raunchiest blues as well as the subtlest love songs." A survey of her career attests to that versatility: The bouncy soulfulness of "Dance With Me Henry," the "funky and high-spirited" "Tell Mama" in 1967, and her aching torch songs, "At Last" and "I'd Rather Go Blind." She's the rare artist to be inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame, and even performed as the Rolling Stones' opening act in the '70s and '80s. Watch any James clip on YouTube, "and dare tell me the world hasn't lost one of its most heart-stopping performers," says James Reed at The Boston Globe.
2. There was "darkness beneath the joy"
"It was often said of Etta James that you could hear her whole life in her voice," says Ulaby. And it was a tortured life, too. During a career high from 1960-63, she had 10 records on the R&B charts. But after a slump n the mid-1960s, James fell prey to a drug habit, resorting to bouncing checks, forging prescriptions, and stealing from friends to feed her addiction. After a stint in rehab, she emerged a darker, more soulful singer, channeling all of that life experience into her music. She often spoke candidly about her drug addiction, and the affect it had on her career. "A lot of people think the blues is depressing," she told The Los Angeles Times in 1992, "but that's not the blues I’m singing. When I'm singing blues, I'm singing life. People that can't stand to listen to the blues, they've got to be phonies."
3. She reinvented "At Last," and made it a classic
James is best known for her take on the standard "At Last," which was originally written in 1941 and recorded by Glen Miller's orchestra, but was made indelible by James in 1961. She crooned the song "with a measured contralto," says Dave Hoekstra at The Chicago Sun-Times, surrendering to "the dynamics of an entire relationship: The wanting, the discovery, and renewal." Thanks to James' "shimmering, torchy" vocals, says Ben Greenman at The New Yorker, the song has become ubiquitous. Beyond popping up in films and commercials, "At Last" is now the consummate wedding song, says Mandi Bierly at Entertainment Weekly. "The lyrics are so simple, her voice and string section so triumphant — no song captures the jubilation of knowing you've found love better." When Beyonce Knowles played the singer in the 2008 film Cadillac Records, she recorded James' version of the song, reprising it for Barack and Michelle Obama on the night of his inauguration.
4. She influenced generations of singers
James' reach was vast, says Reed, influencing the sound of female singers ranging from Dusty Springfield to Bonnie Raitt. Flip on the radio today, and you can hear James' trademark, wrenching soulfulness in the voices of Adele, Christina Aguilera, and Beyonce. "Playing Etta James taught me so much about myself," Beyonce said after filming Cadillac Records, "and singing her music inspired me to be a stronger artist." After learning of James' death Friday, the "Single Ladies" singer posted on her website: "Etta James was one of the greatest vocalists of our time… Her musical contributions will last a lifetime."