BLACK VOICES
01/20/2012 11:32 am ET Updated Mar 21, 2012

Etta James Dead: Soul Singer Famous For 'At Last' Dies At 73

Etta James, the soul singer who is most famous for the wedding classic, "At Last," has died.

"This is a tremendous loss for the family, her friends and fans around the world," her manager Lupe De Leon said. "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."

De Leon said that James's husband, Artis Mills, and her two sons, Donto and Sametto, were at her side when she died.

The singer was hospitalized in December for breathing problems, shortly after news of her terminal battle with leukemia was made public. Her live-in doctor called on fans to pray for the ailing star. "I am Southern and Christian and would just ask for the prayers of her fans and friends," the physician told a local paper.

She was removed from her respirator in late December, when her doctors said her condition had stabilized, and released from the hospital earlier this month.

Celebrities responded to news of James's death on Twitter.

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Twitter Reactions to Etta James' Death

James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938. She said in Rage To Survive, her candid 1995 autobiography, that she believed the blues great Rudolf Walter Wanderone, Jr. — better known as Minnesota Fats — was her father, whom she never knew.

Like many early soul singers, she began performing in church, before switching to secular music when she was young, and she quickly developed a reputation as a bawdy performer. One of her early hits, "Roll With Me, Henry" — a reworking of Hank Ballard and the Midnighter's "Work With Me Annie" — got a title change after some radio disc jockeys thought the song's name was too racy. (It was renamed "The Wallflower," and became a huge hit.)

She enjoyed her period of greatest success in the early 1960s, when she had a string of hits including "I'd Rather Go Blind" and "Don't Tell Mama." Her reimagining of “At Last,” which was written two decades earlier and originally recorded by Glenn Miller’s orchestra, would become her signature song.

In the 1970s, James toured as an opening act for the Rolling Stones. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, and won four Grammys over her long career — including a lifetime achievement award in 2003.

But James fought a long battle with substance abuse, which she discused candidly . ""The young Etta James was getting quite a reputation for herself," she recalled in Rage. "It didn't take long for people to learn about my appetite for drugs. And when Id'd hear them speak — in distant rooms off backstage — they'd always say the young Etta James, as if my tender age made my wild habits more pitiful."

She had several stints in rehab, and at one point, her husband, Mills, took the fall for the couple's arrest on heroin possession charges. He served three years of a ten-year prison sentence. James went on to struggle with an addiction to painkillers later in her life.

In the early aughts, James had bariatric surgery to get control of her weight — which had ballooned to 400 lbs."I didn't think she'd make it another two or three years," her son, Sametto, told People. "She just stayed in bed in her nightgown." After a 2000 appearance of Roseanne Barr's talk show, Barr worriedly pulled James aside and recommended a doctor.

The news of James's death comes just hours after the passing of Johnny Otis, a musician and talent scout who was a major player in early rhythm and blues, and whom James called her "guru."

James was portrayed by Beyonce Knowles in 2008's "Cadillac Records." James praised Knowles portrayal of her in the film, but was less complimentary of the pop star when she sang "At Last" at the inauguration of President Obama. "You guys know your president, right? You know the one with the big ears?" she told TMZ.. "Wait a minute, he ain't my president. He might be yours; he ain't my president. But I tell you that woman he had singing for him, singing my song — she's going to get her ass whipped."

James later backed off the comments, and said that she wished that she had been asked to sing at the gala.

In December, her husband and sons reached a deal on managing her $1 million estate and her medical care. They had challenged the decisions of their stepfather Mills, who married the singer in 1969 and is the estate's conservator.

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