LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hundreds of mourners gathered at a Los Angeles-area church on Saturday to remember rhythm-and-blues singer Etta James, saying she overcame great personal and professional hurdles to sing “the times that she lived.”
During a two-hour service that featured performances by pop stars Stevie Wonder and Christina Aguilera, the Rev. Al Sharpton eulogized James as a woman who rose from a tough childhood and poured her pain into her music.
Aguilera performed a version of “At Last,” James’ show-stopping hit and best-known song.
James died at 73 at a Riverside, California, hospital on January 20 from complications of leukemia, prompting numerous tributes from artists and musicians who were influenced by her work, including Mariah Carey and Aretha Franklin.
“People need to understand that when they hear the music Etta James sang, she sang the times that she lived,” Sharpton told friends and family at Greater Bethany Church City of Refuge church in the Los Angeles suburb of Gardena.
“She put our pain and our dreams and our love and our need for one another in her vocal chords, but the difference between her and other artists is somehow you felt she meant what she was saying.”
James, who was born to a teenage single mother, won wide acclaim and three Grammys, but saw numerous ups-and-downs in her career and personal life. She struggled with obesity and heroin addiction, ran a hot-check scheme and had troubled relationships with men.
But, Sharpton said, James should be remembered for blazing a trail for the entertainers who followed her.
“Etta was the one that brought class ... generations behind will try but never quite have the strut and swagger and talent of Etta James,” he said.
“At last you (Etta) can get the gratitude of the savior now. Go on home Etta. Get your reward now ... you beat them Etta. You won Etta. Get your reward Etta. At last. At last. At last.”
James won her first Grammy in 1995 for her album, “Mystery Lady: The Songs of Billie Holiday.” She also won Grammys in 2003 and 2005, and a lifetime achievement award in 2003 from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which gives out the Grammys.
James is survived by her husband, Artis Mills, two sons Donto and Sametto who played in James’ backing band, and four grandchildren.
Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by David Bailey