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Etta James; versatile pioneering vocalist transcended genres

ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Etta James gave a rousing performance at Boston’s House of Blues in 2009.

LOS ANGELES - Etta James’s performance of the enduring classic “At Last’’ was the embodiment of refined soul: Angelic-sounding strings heralded arrival of her passionate yet measured vocals as she sang tenderly about a love finally realized after a long and patient wait.

In real life, little about Ms. James was as genteel as that song. The platinum blonde’s first hit was a saucy R&B number about sex, and she was known as a hell-raiser who had tempestuous relationships with her family, her men, and the music industry. Then she spent years battling a drug addiction that she admitted had sapped her great talents.

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The 73-year-old died yesterday at Riverside Community Hospital ofcomplications of leukemia, with her husband and sons at her side, said her manager, Lupe De Leon.

“It’s a tremendous loss for her fans around the world,’’ he said. “She’ll be missed. A great American singer. Her music defied category.’’

Etta James during a recording session in Alabama with Bow Legs Miller (left) and producer Rick Hall (right), who owned the legendary FAMEStudios in Muscle Shoales.

BILLY BROWN/GETTY IMAGES

Etta James during a recording session in Alabama with Bow Legs Miller (left) and producer Rick Hall (right), who owned the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoales.

Ms. James’s spirit could not be contained. Perhaps that’s what made her so magnetic in music. It is surely what made her so dynamic as one of the underrated legends of R&B, blues, and rock.

“The bad girls . . . had the look that I liked,’’ she wrote in her 1995 autobiography, “Rage to Survive.’’ “I wanted to be rare, I wanted to be noticed, I wanted to be exotic as a Cotton Club chorus girl, and I wanted to be obvious as the most flamboyant hooker on the street. I just wanted to be.’’

“Etta James was a pioneer. Her ever-changing sound has influenced rock and roll, rhythm and blues, pop, soul, and jazz artists, marking her place as one of the most important female artists of our time,’’ said Terry Stewart, president and chief executive of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “From Janis Joplin to Joss Stone, an incredible number of performers owe their debts to her. There is no mistaking the voice of Etta James, and it will live forever.’’

Despite the reputation she cultivated, she will always be remembered best for “At Last.’’ The jazz-inflected rendition was not the original, but it would become the most famous and the song would define her as a legendary singer. Over the decades, brides used it as their song down the aisle and car companies used it to hawk their wares, and it filtered from one generation to the next through its inclusion in movies like “American Pie.’’ Perhaps most famously, President Obama and his wife, Michelle, danced to a version at his inauguration ball.

The tender, sweet song belied the turmoil in her personal life. She was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles to a mother whom she described as a scam artist, a substance abuser, and a fleeting presence during her youth. She never knew her father, although she was told and had believed that he was the famous billiards player Minnesota Fats. He neither confirmed nor denied it: when they met, he simply told her: “I don’t remember everything. I wish I did, but I don’t.’’

She was raised by Lula and Jesse Rogers, who owned the rooming house where her mother once lived. The pair brought up Ms. James in the Christian faith, and as a young girl, her voice stood out in the church choir.

But rhythm and blues lured her away from the church, and she found herself drawn to the grittiness of the music.

“My mother always wanted me to be a jazz singer, but I always wanted to be raunchy,’’ she recalled in her book.

She was doing just that when bandleader Johnny Otis, who died Tuesday, found her singing on San Francisco street corners with some girlfriends in the early 1950s.

When Otis heard “Roll With Me, Henry,’’ he told Ms. James to get her mother’s permission to accompany him to Los Angeles to make a recording. Instead, the 15-year-old singer forged her mother’s name on a note saying she was 18.

“At that time, you weren’t allowed to say roll, because it was considered vulgar,’’ Ms. James recalled. “So when Georgia Gibbs did her version, she renamed it ‘Dance With Me, Henry’ and it went to number one.’’

After her 1955 debut, Ms. James toured with Otis’s revue, sometimes earning only $10 a night. In 1959, she signed with Chicago’s legendary Chess label, began cranking out the hits and going on tours with performers such as Bobby Vinton, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Everly Brothers.

Ms. James recorded a string of hits in the late 1950s and ’60s including “Trust In Me,’’ “Something’s Got a Hold On Me,’’ “Sunday Kind of Love,’’ “All I Could Do Was Cry,’’ and, of course, “At Last.’’

In 1967, she cut one of the most highly regarded soul albums, “Tell Mama,’’ an earthy fusion of rock and gospel music featuring blistering horn arrangements, funky rhythms, and a churchy chorus.

Her professional success, however, was balanced against personal demons, namely a drug addiction.

“I was trying to be cool,’’ she said in 1995, explaining what had led her to try heroin.

“I hung out in Harlem and saw Miles Davis and all the jazz cats,’’ she continued. “At one time, my heavy role models were all druggies. Billie Holiday sang so groovy. Is that because she’s on drugs? It was in my mind as a young person. I probably thought I was a young Billie Holiday, doing whatever came with that.’’

She was addicted to heroin for years, beginning in 1960, and it led to a harrowing existence that included time behind bars. It sapped her singing abilities and her money, eventually almost destroying her career.

It would take her at least two decades to beat her drug problem. Her husband, Artis Mills, went to prison for years, taking full responsibility for drugs during an arrest, even though Ms. James was culpable.

“People tried to help, but I was hell-bent on getting high,’’ she wrote in 1980.

She finally quit the habit and managed herself for a while, calling up small clubs and asking them, “Have you ever heard of Etta James?’’ in order to get gigs. Eventually, she got regular bookings. In 1984, she was tapped to sing the national anthem at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and her career received the boost it needed, though she fought addiction again when she got hooked on painkillers in the late 1980s.

Drug addiction was not her only problem. She struggled with her weight and often performed from a wheelchair as she aged and gained weight. In the early 2000s, she had weight-loss surgery and shed some 200 pounds.

Ms. James performed well into her senior years, and it was “At Last’’ that kept bringing her the biggest ovations. The song was a perennial that never aged, and on Jan. 20, 2009, as crowds celebrated that an African-American had become president of the United States, the song played as the first couple danced.

Ms. James was inducted into the Rock Hall in 1993, captured a Grammy in 2003 for best contemporary blues album for “Let’s Roll,’’ one in 2004 for best traditional blues album for “Blues to the Bone,’’ and one for best jazz vocal performance for 1994’s “Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday.’’ She was also awarded a special Grammy in 2003 for lifetime achievement and got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Her health went into decline, however, and by 2011 she was being cared for at home by a personal doctor.

She suffered from dementia, kidney problems, and leukemia. Her husband and her two sons fought over control of her $1 million estate, though a deal was struck keeping Mills as the conservator and capping the singer’s expenses at $350,000. In December, her physician announced that her leukemia was terminal.

In October, it was announced that Ms. James was retiring from recording, and a final studio recording, “The Dreamer,’’ was released, featuring the singer taking on classic songs, from Bobby “Blue’’ Bland’s “Dreamer’’ to Guns N’ Roses “Welcome To the Jungle’’ - still rocking, and a fitting end to her storied career.

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