Etta James' performance of the enduring classic "At Last" was the embodiment of refined soul: Angelic-sounding strings harkened the arrival of her passionate yet measured vocals as she sang tenderly about a love finally realized after a long and patient wait.
In real life, little about James was as genteel as that song. The platinum blond's first hit was a saucy R&B number about sex, and she was known as a hell-raiser who had tempestuous relationships with her family, her men and the music industry. Then she spent years battling a drug addiction that she admitted sapped away at her great talents.
James, 73, died Friday at Riverside Community Hospital from complications of leukemia, with her husband and sons at her side, her manager, Lupe De Leon said.
"It's a tremendous loss for her fans around the world," he said. "She'll be missed. A great American singer. Her music defied category."
James' spirit could not be contained -- perhaps that's what made her so magnetic in music; it is surely what made her so dynamic as one of R&B, blues and rock 'n' roll's underrated legends.
"The bad girls had the look that I liked," she wrote in her 1995 autobiography, "Rage to Survive." "I wanted to be rare, I wanted to be noticed, I wanted to be exotic as a Cotton Club chorus girl, and I wanted to be obvious as the most flamboyant hooker on the street. I just wanted to be."
She will always be remembered best for "At Last." Over the decades, brides used it as their song down the aisle and car companies to hawk their wares. Perhaps most famously, President Obama and the first lady danced to a version at his inauguration ball.
The tender, sweet song belied the turmoil in her personal life. James -- born Jamesette Hawkins -- was born in Los Angeles to a mother whom she described as a scam artist, a substance abuser and a fleeting presence during her youth. She never knew her father, although she was told and had believed, that he was the famous billiards player Minnesota Fats. He neither confirmed nor denied it: when they met, he simply told her: "I don't remember everything. I wish I did, but I don't."
James recorded a string of hits in the late 1950s and '60s, including "Trust in Me," "Something's Got a Hold On Me," "Sunday Kind of Love," "All I Could Do Was Cry," and of course, "At Last."
"[Chess Records founder] Leonard Chess was the most aware of anyone. He went up and down the halls of Chess announcing, 'Etta's crossed over! Etta's crossed over!' I still didn't know exactly what that meant, except that maybe more white people were listening to me."
Her professional success, however, was balanced against personal demons, namely a drug addiction.
"I was trying to be cool," she told the AP in 1995, explaining what had led her to try heroin.
"At one time, my heavy role models were all druggies. Billie Holiday sang so groovy. Is that because she's on drugs?"
Her addiction ed to a harrowing existence that included time behind bars. It sapped her singing abilities and her money, eventually, almost destroying her career.
She finally quit the habit and managed herself for a while, calling up small clubs and asking them, "Have you ever heard of Etta James?" in order to get gigs. In 1984, she was tapped to sing the national anthem at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and her career got the resurgent boost it needed.
Drug addiction wasn't her only problem. She struggled with her weight, and often performed from a wheelchair as she got older and heavier. In the early 2000s, she had weight-loss surgery and shed some 200 pounds.
James was inducted into the Rock Hall in 1993, captured Grammys for best contemporary blues album for "Let's Roll," one for best traditional blues album for "Blues to the Bone," one for best jazz vocal performance for "Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday," and in 2003 for lifetime achievement.
Her health went into decline, and by 2011, she was being cared for at home by a personal doctor. She suffered from dementia, kidney problems and leukemia.
In October 2011, it was announced she was retiring from recording, and a final album, "The Dreamer," was released.