She was so much more than “At Last.’’ And yet for most people, Etta James is forever linked entirely to that incredible song.
I was reminded of this when the R&B singer, who also sang blues, rock, and jazz, died Friday at 73 of leukemia, in Riverside, Calif. An informal office poll revealed what I suspected: The casual fan could sing a refrain from “At Last’’ but failed to name another hit associated with James.
Of course, if you’re going to get saddled with a signature song, “At Last’’ is a pretty great one, a tender ballad tailor-made for slow dances, wedding receptions, and other Kodak moments.
Dig a little deeper, though, and you realize that Etta James in full splendor was simply breathtaking. She could stop your heart with the way she turned a phrase or set your feet in motion with her rhythm. Dialed down or at full throttle, James always made you wonder how she channeled that vast well of emotion.
To see and hear what I’m talking about, go to YouTube and find the video of James singing “I’d Rather Go Blind’’ in 1987 in a duet with Dr. John. (You want the 5:54 clip; the quality is better.) The original version appeared as a simmering ballad on 1968’s “Tell Mama,’’ but nearly 20 years later, James was still feeling her way around it.
The live performance is brutal, a storm of laidback blues and thunderous notes, and as raw as if the song’s betrayal had happened just earlier that evening. James punishes that microphone until you pity it. At one point she begins to pounce on the word “baby,’’ booming its syllables like they’re meant to sound like gunfire.
Dr. John eventually saunters over from his piano, looking like a dog that’s just peed on the rug. He’s supposed to appease James for stepping out on her - “It wasn’t nothin’ serious / I guess I was just a little delirious’’ - but even he knows it’s in vain. Hell hath no fury like this particular woman scorned.
At the end of the performance, James embraces Dr. John, her head resting on his shoulder, and I like to imagine James is thinking what I’m thinking: Where the hell did that just come from?
In just six minutes, that, to me, is the essence of Etta James. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. You didn’t need to read her harrowing 1995 autobiography, “Rage to Survive,’’ to know she struggled through a troubled childhood, abusive men, stints in jail, and addictions to heroin and cocaine. All that turmoil was right there in the grooves of her records, in that great big voice that could howl like a feral animal.
She had that intensity from the start, and her influence on other singers was immediate, with everyone from Aretha Franklin to Janis Joplin professing their admiration. More recently her fans have included Adele, Christina Aguilera, and Beyoncé.
They have all carried her torch, and James was indeed acclaimed in her lifetime, but I suspect her legacy will only grow in the wake of her passing. Her catalog - which is dense with detours into sweet pop songs, blistering R&B, Southern soul, gritty funk, and dusky jazz - is ripe for rediscovery. Every year I pick up an album I haven’t heard. As recently as two weeks ago, I bought “Losers Weepers,’’ a soul classic from 1970 that’s the most gripping thing I’ve heard so far this year.
James was the rare artist who, long after her commercial peak in the ’60s, still made terrific albums that are overlooked today. Like Nina Simone and Johnny Cash, James turned out at least one masterpiece every decade, right until the end.
She steeped herself in the blues starting in the ’90s and then began interpreting pop and rock songs on later releases. (The novelty of James singing Prince’s “Purple Rain’’ is better than you might expect.)
Aside from maybe “At Last,’’ you don’t hear James on the radio anymore. But you do hear her legacy on pretty much every station. Our culture still values her brand of singing from not just the heart, but the gut.
It’s become the standard for our pop stars, in particular. When Adele goes in for those big money notes on “Rolling in the Deep,’’ you know the British singer grew up idolizing James. When an “American Idol’’ hopeful belts a ballad to the balcony (sometimes “At Last,’’ by the way), Etta is in the details.
Aguilera, though, has been the most exemplary disciple of James’s burn-the-house-down singing style. Aguilera once called James her “all-time favorite singer’’ and routinely cited her as a major influence. That devotion came full circle in the 2010 film “Burlesque,’’ in which Aguilera’s character has her first showstopper with a brassy rendition of “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,’’ an early hit for James.
Even when she was releasing new music, in recent years you tended to hear about James for the wrong reasons. Initially she played nice with Beyoncé, who clearly adores James and portrayed her lovingly in the 2008 movie “Cadillac Records.’’ But when Beyoncé performed “At Last’’ at President Obama’s inaugural ball, James was incensed that someone else would cover her song. Her sniping spilled over into her concerts around that time, too.
I regret that I never saw James perform live, but I heard that her last show in Boston, in 2009 at the House of Blues, was James at her finest, which is to say N-A-S-T-Y. Even at 71 and in diminished health, she was grinding on stage, rubbing herself when a coy lyric called for it, and generally not acting her age.
That was Etta - invested in the song, in what it meant to her, and in how she could express that to the audience. If she charmed you with “At Last,’’ she could just as easily make you blush or stagger with awe with everything in its wake.