She was best known for her 1961 hit song, “At Last,” which earned her a spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
“This is a tremendous loss for the family, her friends and fans around the world,” said longtime manager Lupe De Leon, who confirmed the news to CNN. “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.”
Born Jamesetta Hawkins, the Los Angeles native began singing in her church choir at age 5. By the time she was 14, she was singing lead in the doo-wop group Peaches, and recorded her first #1 rhythm and blues hit, “The Wallflower (Dance with Me Henry).” The song’s huge success attracted the attention of soul singer Little Richard, who invited James to go on tour with him in 1956. Shortly after, James launched what would be a life-long and legendary solo career.
During the next decade, James released a string of hit records including her signature record “At Last.” In the mid-’60s, she began battling a heroin addiction, which led to several erratic stints in psychiatric hospitals. Between hospital visits, she would continue to record and still remained a large concert attraction due to her alluring stage appeal. She briefly overcame her drug addiction in 1974 during an extended stay in rehab and a few years later went on a international tour with the world-renowned rock band the Rolling Stones.
In her later years, James received numerous honors including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and inductions into the Rock & Roll Hall Fame, Blues Hall of Fame, and Rockabilly Hall of Fame. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked her #22 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Beyonce portrayed James in 2008’s “Cadillac Records,” re-introducing the song “At Last” to a new generation. On January 20, 2009, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama danced to various renditions of James’ “At Last” at each of the 10 official balls honoring his inauguration.
In 2011, James’ health began to decline when she was diagnosed with leukemia and a blood infection. Court documents also reveal that she suffered from dementia and kidney failure. In December 2011, doctors determined that she was terminally ill and asked her fans around the world for prayers.
She passed away at a Riverside, California, hospital surrounded by her close family and loved ones, according to De Leon. She is survived by her son Donto James and husband Artis Mills.