Don’t Cry Baby

Etta James, Who Blazed Trail for Women in R&B, Dead at 73

The R&B icon died from complications of leukemia after a lifelong fight with personal demons. By Christine Pelisek

Guidot / Landov

R&B icon Etta James, who was known for her signature song “At Last,” died from complications of leukemia at a Riverside, Calif., hospital Friday morning.

With a golden voice full of both heartache and redemption, James became one of the most influential singers of her time. She was known for her bluesy riffs and slow-burning melodies, and inspired singers like Christina Aguilera and Bonnie Raitt. The woman with a fierce stubborn streak also spent much of her life fighting off personal demons, including drug addiction and obesity.

Paramedics rushed the 73-year-old platinum-blonde songstress to Park View Hospital at 6 p.m. Thursday from her ranch-style home in Riverside County after she went into cardiac arrest, according to her live-in-physician, Dr. Elaine James. Dr. James, who is not related to the Grammy winner, said hospital staff resuscitated the singer twice before she passed away at 8 a.m. in the hospital’s emergency room.

“She was a very generous, fun-loving person,” said James. “I hope she is remembered mostly by her true calling: her singing her songs.”

In December, James, who also suffered from dementia and kidney failure, was diagnosed with chronic leukemia and admitted to a Riverside hospital for pneumonia. She was released Jan. 5, but continued to get “infections back to back to back,” said Dr. James.

Dr. James, who resided with the singer and her husband, Artis Mills, for the last two years, said that toward the end of James’s life, “She started to have a look. I just kind of knew it based on the rapidity of the infections. It was just a matter of time before one took her out.”

By the end, Dr. James said: “She was tired. You could see it in her face.”

Jamesetta Hawkins was born in Los Angeles to a teenage mother during World War II. She described her mother as a scam artist and drug addict who left her to be raised by a foster mother until the age of 12. She didn’t know her father, but believed throughout her life that he was Minnesota Fats, the renowned billiards player.

She was discovered in 1954 by bandleader Johhny Otis, who spotted her singing on a San Francisco street corner. In her 1995 autobiography, Rage to Survive, James wrote that she 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.”

She certainly accomplished her mission. In the ‘50s, she toured with Bobby Vinton, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Everly Brothers, and recorded a number of hits, including “Trust in Me,” “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” “Sunday Kind of Love,” “All I Could Do Was Cry,” and her most famous ballad, “At Last.”

Her rise to fame was hampered by a debilitating heroin addiction, stints in rehab, and troubles with the law.

By the late ‘80s, the saucy and self-possessed singer had kicked her drug habits and hired an Oakland-based manager, Lupe De Leon, who apparently trained for handling the diva by working as a probation officer. Under De Leon’s management, James’s career flourished in the ‘90s. She was inducted to the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame in 1993, and won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance in 1994. But by the late ‘90s, the 5-foot-3 singer’s weight, which topped 400 pounds, began to impede her ability to perform.

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Judy Robinson, whose daughter had two children with James’s son Sametto, said she saw James perform in San Clemente, Calif., in the ‘90s. “She did all these sexy gyrations up there on the stage,” she said. “I almost had a heart attack. She said she wanted me to know that she wasn’t like that in real life. She made light of it. She made it clear it wasn’t the way she was. She gave it her all on stage. People followed Etta. They loved her.”

However, by January 2008, questions surrounding James’s mental health began to surface. De Leon began planning a 20-show U.S. tour, but things seemed to start off rocky. According to California Superior Court filings, De Leon questioned whether James was capable of touring. He had to hire a new road manager after she “moved in with her son Donto, and filed for divorce” from Mills, who previously held that job.

De Leon complained that he didn’t get paid for his work and felt it was done as a “ploy to provoke me to quit/resign as her manager.”

James’s music agent, Brad Goodman, also voiced concerns about the singer’s behavior in another letter released by the court. Goodman wrote: “Throughout 2008, Etta’s behavior became unexpectedly erratic and irrational in regard to her decision-making,” he wrote. “In addition, it became increasingly difficult to hold a conversation with Etta over the phone.”

During the tour, James made headlines after she informed a Seattle crowd in February 2009 that Beyonce, who portrayed her in the 2008 film Cadillac Records, deserved to have her “ass whupped” for singing James’s 1961 hit “At Last” at President Obama’s inaugural ball.

Two months later, James made an appearance on Dancing With the Stars as a guest performer. However, the singer had to cancel several of her shows— including one at the Hollywood Bowl.

In the last two years, James’s life was marred with legal battles between Mills and her two sons over control of her finances. She was also suffering from dementia, kidney problems, and leukemia, and was being taken care of full-time by Dr. James.

In November 2010, Mills filed a petition to have three of the singer’s bank accounts, estimated at around $1 million, declared community property so he could pay for her business affairs and mounting medical bills. Mills estimated that he spent around $30,000 per month for James’s private medical care, which included two full-time nurses and a round-the-clock doctor.

The following month, James’s son Donto, a bassist in his mother’s band, filed legal papers asking the court to grant him conservatorship of his mother’s estate, and requested the court appoint an independent administrator to handle her finances.

A judge ruled that Mills would remain as the conservator of her estate.

James’s health began to deteriorate further in November when she stopped eating and speaking to her loved ones, said Dr. James. “The beginning of November was the last time I had a conversation with her,” she said. “I feel very grateful at the opportunity to work for her. It was quite a challenge but it was a blessing.”

Dr. James said that on Jan. 19 at around 5:05 p.m., she wrote in her notebook that her patient was “unstable, predicted demise in the next 24 to 72 hours.”

Etta James, an avid doll collector who loved going to swap meets and garage sales, died the following morning. “I gave her more time in case she wanted to be stubborn,” she said.

She will be buried in a Los Angeles cemetery next her mother.