Farewell to matriarch of R&B with the mother of all voices

 

Los Angeles

Etta James, the mercurially-talented singer whose career spanned almost six decades, and who was feted as the "matriarch" of R&B music, has passed away after a long battle with leukaemia. She was 73.

Her death was announced last night by her friend and business manager, Lupe De Leon. He said that Artis Mills, Ms James's husband of 43 years, and her sons, Donto and Sametto, were at her hospital bedside in the Riverside Community Hospital, just east of Los Angeles.

"This is a tremendous loss for the family, her friends and her fans from around the world," De Leon said. "She was a true original who could sing it all. Her music defied category. I worked with Etta for over 30 years. She was my friend and I will miss her always."

Fellow artists paid tribute to both the remarkable voice and the extraordinary range which garnered James six Grammys and allowed her to endure across several generations of popular music, influencing everyone from the Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin to Tina Turner and Beyoncé.

It is a measure of that talent that many hits from her back-catalogue, from "The Wallflower," "Something's Got a Hold on Me," and "Stop the Wedding," to "I'd Rather go Blind" and "Sunday Kind of Love," are still widely referenced by modern artists. Indeed Adele, currently the world's most valuable artist, recently cited James and Aretha Franklin as her foremost inspirations. "If you were to look up 'singer' in the dictionary, you'd see their names," she said. Perhaps her greatest hit, "At Last," which was recorded in 1960, remains a dancefloor staple for newly-married couples. It was also the first song that Barack and Michelle Obama danced to following his inauguration.

Despite the tender beauty of her songs, life wasn't always easy on Etta James, who was famed for her combustible personality and platinum hair.

She was born in Los Angeles in 1938, the daughter of a 14-year-old drug addict and a father she never knew, and learned to sing in a gospel choir.

The singer was "discovered" as a teenager by the bandleader Johnny Otis, who found her performing on a San Francisco street corner in the early 1950s, and after several years with his revue, was catapulted to fame by signing to the Chicago record label Chess, who released her first major hit, "All I Could Do Was Cry," in 1960. Success brought temptation, though, and she became addicted to heroin, a drug she didn't kick until the mid 1970s.

Later in life, she became hooked on painkillers and subsequently suffered dramatic weight gain which was only beaten with the help of gastric band surgery.

After her illness was diagnosed last year, James's husband and sons became involved in a legal battle over her estate. It has yet to be fully settled.

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