NEW ORLEANS - APRIL 26: Recording Artist Etta James performs at the 2009 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at the Fair Grounds Race Course on April 26, 2009 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
(USA TODAY) -- When Barack and Michelle Obama took their inaugural dance as America's first couple, it was to the strains of Etta James' signature song, At Last.
PHOTOS | Singing legend Etta James dies at 73
Though pop star Beyoncé rendered the tune at the celebration, she was channeling James, the R&B and blues icon whose 50-year career was marked by powerful tunes and an often tumultuous personal life. She died Friday at age 73 in California from leukemia, having influenced dozens of singers, including Beyoncé- who portrayed her in the 2008 film Cadillac Records- Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion, Shemekia Copeland and Janis Joplin.
James had been out of the spotlight since January 2010 when she was hospitalized with MRSA, a bacterial infection resistant to many antibiotics. She had been seeking treatment to end a dependency to painkillers and other over-the-counter medications. Donto James, her son, said at the time that his mother had been battling Alzheimer's disease since 2009. Most recently, she was being treated for chronic leukemia.
The singer was as renowned for her sharp tongue as her lusty belting. Not long after the inauguration, she let it be known she was miffed at both the singer and the president for being passed over to sing the 1942 Glenn Miller pop hit that she turned into an R&B classic in 1961. (She subsequently insisted that she was joking.) She got her chance to sing At Last for a national television audience a few months later as a guest on ABC's Dancing With the Stars.
The fiery singer known for such hits as I'd Rather Go Blind and Tell Mama had grown increasingly more popular in recent years with her unbridled performances and a dozen standout albums, including 2006's All the Way. The three-time Grammy winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was beloved for her raw passion, ribald humor and brutal honesty.
When Rolling Stone magazine in 2004 placed her among its 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, Bonnie Raitt wrote, "Etta has clearly influenced people like Janis Joplin and me, and now people like Susan Tedeschi and Joss Stone. Anybody who has a bluesy side to what they do can point to Etta James as the bridge between R&B, blues and pop singing. You can't overestimate her influence."
James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles to unwed 14-year-old Dorothy Hawkins, who never officially revealed the father. James claimed that her father was famed pool hustler Rudolph "Minnesota Fats" Walderone.
James - a gospel prodigy who sang and was heard on local radio with the St. Paul Baptist Church choir in Los Angeles when she was 5 - was discovered at 14 by Johnny Otis. The famed R&B bandleader flipped her first name to create her stage moniker. Her first recording -Roll With Me Henry with The Peaches (also Etta's nickname) - was an answer to Hank Ballard's Work With Me Annie. But the song, which was made over her mother's objections, was considered too racy for radio and its title was changed to The Wallflower. It topped the R&B charts in 1955 and was later covered by white singer Georgia Gibbs, who had a No. 1 pop hit with it as Dance With Me Henry.
James also scored that year with Good Rockin' Daddy and began touring with the likes of Little Richard and Bo Diddley. But her next hit didn't come until 1960, when she signed with the Chess Records subsidiary Argo.
There she did two duets with then-boyfriend and Moonglows' lead singer Harvey Fuqua and had an eight-year string of top 10 R&B hits, including Something's Got a Hold on Me, Stop the Wedding, Trust in Me, Don't Cry, Baby as well as her signature tunes Tell Mama and At Last. Other standouts during that time were the ballad I'd Rather Go Blind and her bluesy duet with Sugar Pie DeSanto, In the Basement.
James spent the next two decades battling a heroin addiction and personal problems, but she continued to tour and record sporadically. By the late '80s, the resilient singer had kicked her habit and the release of The Seven Year Itch signaled her resurgence. Her years of struggle were rewarded in 1993 when she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the following year she won the W.C. Handy Award for best female vocalist. Starting with 1994's Grammy-winning Mystery Lady: The Songs of Billie Holiday, she maintained an eclectic but steady stream of album releases that found her exploring country, jazz, blues and R&B.
James, who titled her 1997 album Love's Been Rough on Me, certainly spoke from experience. She had a series of abusive lovers in her early years. But as the title of her 1995 autobiography with David Ritz proclaimed, she had a Rage to Survive, despite a turbulent love life, poverty and jail time for stealing prescription drugs and writing bad checks.
For a time, her weight ballooned to 400 pounds and she needed a motorized wheelchair to get around. Bad knees forced her to sit when she performed. But weight reduction surgery in 2003 shaved 200 pounds from her frame and granted her new mobility.
James, who had been married to Artis Mills since 1969, made her later career a family affair. Her sons, drummer Donto and bassist Sametto, played with her in concert and produced her music in the studio. Her 2001 jazz standards album, Blue Gardenia, honored her mother, who offered a poignant solo on the title track.