James performed well into her senior years, and it was “At Last” that kept bringing her the biggest ovations. The song was a perennial that never aged, and on Jan. 20, 2009, as crowds celebrated that _ at last _ an African-American had become president of the United States, the song played as the first couple danced.
But it was superstar Beyonce who serenaded the Obamas, not the legendary singer. Beyonce had portrayed James in “Cadillac Records,” a big-screen retelling of Chess Records’ heyday, and had started to claim “At Last” as her own.
An audio clip surfaced of James at a concert shortly after the inauguration, saying she couldn’t stand the younger singer and that Beyonce had “no business singing my song.” But she told the New York Daily News later that she was joking, even though she had been hurt that she did not get the chance to participate in the inauguration.
Upon hearing of her death, Beyonce released a statement on her website that read: “This is a huge loss. Etta James was one of the greatest vocalists of our time. I am so fortunate to have met such a queen. Her musical contributions will last a lifetime. Playing Etta James taught me so much about myself, and singing her music inspired me to be a stronger artist. When she effortlessly opened her mouth, you could hear her pain and triumph. Her deeply emotional way of delivering a song told her story with no filter. She was fearless, and had guts. She will be missed.”
James did get her accolades over the years. She was inducted into the Rock Hall in 1993, captured a Grammy in 2003 for best contemporary blues album for “Let’s Roll,” one in 2004 for best traditional blues album for “Blues to the Bone” and one for best jazz vocal performance for 1994’s “Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday.” She was also awarded a special Grammy in 2003 for lifetime achievement and got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Her health went into decline, however, and by 2011, she was being cared for at home by a personal doctor.
She suffered from dementia, kidney problems and leukemia. Her husband and her two sons fought over control of her $1 million estate, though a deal was later struck keeping Mills as the conservator and capping the singer’s expenses at $350,000. In December 2011, her physician announced that her leukemia was terminal, and asked for prayers for the singer.
In October 2011, it was announced that James was retiring from recording, and a final studio recording, “The Dreamer,” was released, featuring the singer taking on classic songs, from Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Dreamer” to Guns N’ Roses “Welcome To the Jungle” _ still rocking, and a fitting end to her storied career.