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Life can be like a song. But even the most beautiful of songs must come to an end.
Etta James, the revered blues and jazz singer whose signature tune "At Last" ushered in the age of Obama and has probably been played at more weddings than the wedding march, died early this morning, about two weeks after her doctor revealed that she was terminally ill. She was 73.
James' manager, Lupe De Leon, confirmed that the singer died in Southern California's Riverside Community Hospital from complications of leukemia. Her husband, Artis Mills, and her sons were reportedly by her side.
"This is a tremendous loss for the family, her friends and fans around the world," De Leon said of the musical icon, who would have turned 74 next week. "She was a true original who could sing it all—her music defied category. I worked with Etta for over 30 years. She was my friend and I will miss her always."
While she was plagued by poor health in her final years, having been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2009 and then leukemia earlier this year, James had a voice that guaranteed her at least one form of immortality.
James cut her first record, "Roll With Me, Henry," as a teenager in Los Angeles as part of a girl group called the Peaches. She went on to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Her heyday was considered to be the 1950s and 1960s, with her first album, At Last!, hitting turntables in 1961, but James' first Grammy didn't come until 1994, when she won Best Jazz Vocal Performance for the tribute album Mystery Lady (Songs of Billie Holiday).
In her 1995 memoir, Rage to Survive, James recalled meeting her idol Holiday, saying that the troubled chanteuse (who later died of a drug overdose) warned her to be careful of all the pitfalls of the entertainment business. "Maybe she saw the wildness in my eyes," James wrote, "maybe she saw all the trouble waiting for me."
James battled heroin addiction in the 1960s and '70s, which led to various legal troubles. Her husband got prison time after the two of them were arrested for drug possession. In her book, she credited the Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital with changing her life, but her issues with substance abuse continued to plague her in later years.
All the while, she kept recording and performing, putting out 27 studio albums in all, as well as numerous compilations and live recordings.
In 2009, her signature fire flaring, she picked a one-sided feud with Beyoncé, who played the chanteuse in Cadillac Records, after the pop star sang "At Last" for Barack and Michelle Obama at the Inaugural Ball. She later said she had nothing against her fellow artist, explaining, "Even as a little child, I've always had that comedian kind of attitude...That's probably what went into it."
"I've learned to live with my rage," she wrote in 1995. "In some ways, it's my rage that keeps me going. Without it, I would have been whipped long ago. With it, I got a lot more songs to sing."
She is survived by her sons, Donto and Sametto, who are both musicians.