‘At Last’ said so much, though perhaps not enough, about the great Etta James

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James had a vibrant, varied career spanning soul, blues, jazz, and more ()
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Etta James was 22 years old when she recorded "At Last" in 1960. It wasn't her first single to chart, but it would become her biggest hit, and the one that almost invariably accompanied tributes to the singer, who passed away last Friday. 

"At Last," a Mack Gordon/Harry Warren standard first popularized by Glenn Miller, tells of love long waited for and finally found. James' terse, shimmering version splits the difference between toughness and vulnerability. She's overcome with joy, but there's an acknowledgment of all that came before—the cold expanse of loneliness, the opposite of bliss. Shooting stars are also burning up into nothingness. And even if "At Last" proved to be a crossover smash because of its overt romance, there remains a hardness to it. James' is a lived-in performance, and she was just the right age to channel both fairy tales and cynicism in a three-minute side. 

It's somewhat crass to dwell on "At Last." While it was her commercial high-water mark, James was nowhere near a one-hit wonder. She would remain active, in the studio and on the road, for most of the 50 years following that hit. Her 1967 Southern soul opus Tell Mama, recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., is a classic that captures a fiery, wry James, and it's the most vivid encapsulation of who she was and what she had to say. Tell Mama is the Etta James record you want to remember her by, and seems much more the product of the tough-as-nails, devilish pro whose appetite for smack and booze only really caught up with her in the late '70s.

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If "At Last", with its syrupy strings and good manners, was a label-created marketing ploy to bump its young star into the pop realm, and one that couldn't help but bring baggage along with it, Tell Mama was closer to a real synthesis of attitude, nuance, and irony. Most memorable, at least to me, is James' cover of Otis Redding's "Security," which in her hands takes the desperate plea of Redding's version and turns it into a demand: a woman boldly asking for what she feels she deserves. That same year, Aretha Franklin turned Redding's "Respect" into an anthem, similar in its gendered inversion, and it's now thought of as a rhetorical landmark for both the civil rights movement and, at the same time, the budding feminist movement. James' "Security" accomplished much of the same, but in more personal, pragmatic terms. Like Aretha, James became a cultural icon if never a political one, and it's due in large part to the hazy politics offered up by her biography—one where personal struggles and a bad attitude are enshrined in art like "Security." 

James, who was originally from Los Angeles, was a black-pop polymath. She got her start in a girl group, the Creolettes; was mentored by R&B impresario Johnny Otis, who got the band a deal with Modern Records; and in 1955, toured with Little Richard after their "Dance With Me, Henry" (a bowdlerized version of the original title, "Roll With Me, Henry") hit No. 1 on the R&B charts. She went solo shortly after, and by 1960 had signed with the Chess Records family of labels and relocated to Chicago, recording that city's take on the blues (the B-side of "At Last" was her sly take on Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love to You") and jazz standards alike. "At Last" distilled all of that musical experience into one track, making it as much a statement about identity—sonic and otherwise—as one woman's career path, or one character's fictive mood. It owes its timeless, ethereal quality to a peculiar crossroads of history; it's a singular performance that comes as a result of genres splitting and colliding in every phrase. 

Maybe it's unfair to reduce Etta James to one song, especially one that links her directly to Celine Dion. Yet, as inescapable as "At Last" has become, it's impossible to exhaust. All the traces of what Etta James had done, and where she was headed, are present in that song, if only in trace form. It may not be all there was to her as an artist, but James wasn't hiding anything there, either. And if her bitter life story and musical evolution are any indication, "At Last" tells it all, backward and forward.