All Etta James ever has to do to completely win over a crowd is to start singing “At Last.” It is one of several songs (including “Darn Your Eyes” and “Feel Like Breaking Up Someone’s Home”) that she owns. So closely is she associated with “At Last” that many listeners think that she wrote it, not realizing that the song is from the 1940s. James has possessed and dominated many songs throughout her long career. Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, she was a gospel singer at the age of 5, singing over the radio from her church. She moved to San Francisco in 1950 and had a singing group with two other girls. When she was a teenager, she and her trio (the Peaches) were discovered by bandleader Johnny Otis, who loved their version of “Work with Me Annie.” He had them record the song (renamed “The Wallflower”) for the Modern label and it was a big hit in 1955. Though the Peaches did not last long, James did very well as a solo artist for Modern, having a solo hit with “Good Rockin’ Daddy.” Switching to Chess in 1960, she became one of the major R&B singers. She first recorded “At Last” in 1961 and scored with “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “Trust In Me” and “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.” A very spirited and uninhibited singer who never hides the meanings of songs, James has had an up-and-down life but her singing has been remarkably consistent through the years. Music styles may have changed, but James has stuck to her hard-charging approach throughout her career. As the years pass, she has been celebrated as a living legend whose two recent albums, Blues to the Bone and All the Way help sum her up her musical philosophy.
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