Etta James, blues icon, dies aged 73

Legendary singer Etta James, whose hits include At Last and Tell Mama, has died aged 73 after suffering from leukaemia

Legendary blues and soul singer Etta James has died aged 73.

James, who will be remembered for timeless songs such as At Last, All I Could Do Was Cry and Tell Mama, had been rushed to Parkview Community Hospital in Los Angeles on Thursday night and died the following morning. She had been suffering end-stage leukemia and dementia for months, and had been hospitalised in December. Her son, Donto James, said at the time that his mother was "still fighting."

"We're all very sad," her doctor said on Friday. "To know her, to know her past, I feel very blessed to have been able to take care of her." James's husband and sons were with her when she died.

Her manager Lupe De Leon said: "She was a true original – her music defied category. This is a tremendous loss for the family, her friends and fans around the world."

James's life was as eventful as her career, involving drug use and health problems, but she fed her troubles into her music.

Her mother – described in her 1995 autobiography Rage to Survive as a scam artist – was a fleeting presence during her youth. She never knew her father, although she had been told he was the famous billiards player Minnesota Fats. They met when she was older and he neither confirmed nor denied the rumour.

James was discovered by singer Johnny Otis, who died earlier this week. She scored her first hit in 1954 with Roll With Me Henry. James was just 15 at the time, and about to embark on a career that took in blues, gospel, soul, jazz and rock'n'roll.

Known as "Miss Peaches", she joined Chess Records in 1960 and found a wider audience, although she never experienced huge commercial success. She later fought a heroin problem - saying in 1995 she tried the drug because "I was trying to be cool" – and in later years struggled with her weight, often performing from a wheelchair. In the early 2000s, she had weight-loss surgery.

The 2008 film Cadillac Records was based on the Chess story, with James portrayed by Beyoncé. The relationship between the two singers wasn't always a smooth one, however. When Beyoncé performed At last at Barack Obama's inaugural ball, James said she had "no business singing my song that I've been singing forever". She later retracted these comments, saying they were meant as a joke.

James's voice, which could switch from tender to ferocious in an instant, inspired soul singers such as Amy Winehouse and Adele. The latter once claimed hearing James made her want to take up singing. When she eventually met her, Adele said she was starstruck: "My mind went completely blank. I didn't know what to say. Afterwards, I was crying my eyes out."

Donto James and his stepfather, Artis Mills, had been embroiled in a legal dispute over James's care and control of her $1m estate. Under a recent agreement with Donto James and his brother, Sametto James, Mills will remain as conservator of her estate. But a judge last month released only $350,000 for her medical costs, less than the $500,000 that Mills had requested.

The singer won six Grammy awards during her career and was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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