Soul-singing legend Etta James has died from complications arising from leukemia. Her husband, Artis Mills, and her sons were at her side, according to her longtime friend and manager Lupe De Leon. She was seventy-three.
Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles to a teen mother, James never knew her father, though she suspected he was the pool player Minnesota Fats. She grew up with a series of surrogate parents, including a couple that owned a boardinghouse.
In 1950, she set up shop in San Francisco, where she was discovered by Johnny Otis. Eventually, she was signed to Chess Records, where she recorded classic cuts like "Stormy Weather" and perennial wedding favorite "At Last" (dramatized inaccurately in the film Cadillac Records).
James had her share of personal struggles, including a battle with heroin addiction and a disposition charitably described as "brassy." De Leon told CNN that "Etta James is unmanageable, and I'm the closest thing she's ever had to a manager." Her tenacity carried her into elder-stateswoman status even as her career experienced various ups and downs. But she survived to see the impact of her career and receive lip service from modern soul interpreters like Adele and Beyonce (the latter of whom James famously slammed for constantly performing "At Last"). Fittingly, James continued touring until she was physically unable to, even though her health problems took a toll on her stage presence; she was eventually reduced to performing seated.
There will assuredly be a bevy of think pieces and heavy-handed celebrity tributes to James, but I'd rather not take part in that. What we should all do, though, is scare up some headphones and take a few minutes from our day to remember Etta as she deserves to be remembered: through her music.