GARDENA, Calif. – Rhythm & blues legend Etta James was remembered at a service Saturday attended by hundreds of friends, family and fans as a woman who triumphed against all odds to break down cultural and musical barriers in a style that was unfailingly honest.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist, eulogized James in a rousing speech, describing her remarkable rise from poverty and pain to become a woman whose music became an enduring anthem for weddings and commercials.
Perhaps most famously, President Barack Obama and the first lady shared their first inaugural ball dance to a version of the song sung by Beyonce, who portrayed James in the film “Cadillac Records.” Sharpton on Saturday opened his remarks by reading a statement from the president.
“Etta will be remembered for her legendary voice and her contributions to our nation’s musical heritage,” Obama’s statement read.
The Grammy-winning singer died Jan. 20 after battling leukemia and other ailments, including dementia. She had retreated from public life in recent years, but on Saturday her legacy was on display as mourners of all ages and races converged on the City of Refuge church in Gardena, south of downtown Los Angeles.
Among the stars performing tributes to James were Stevie Wonder and Christina Aguilera, who told the gathering that she has included “At Last” in every concert she’s performed as a tribute to her musical inspiration.
Wonder performed three songs, including “Shelter In the Rain” and a harmonica solo. James’ rose-draped casket was on display, surrounded by wreaths and floral arrangements and pictures of the singer.
Sharpton, who met James when he was an up-and-coming preacher, credited her with helping break down racial barriers through her music.
“She was able to get us on the same rhythms and humming the same ballads and understanding each other’s melodies way before we could even use the same hotels,” Sharpton said, referring to the era when racial segregation was the law in many U.S. states.
He said James’ fame and influence would have been unthinkable to a woman with James’ background — growing up in a broken home during segregation and at times battling her own demons.
“The genius of Etta James is she flipped the script,” Sharpton said, alluding to her struggles with addiction, which she eventually overcame.
“She waited until she turned her pain into power,” he said, adding that it turned her story away from being a tragic one into one of triumph.
“You beat ’em Etta,” Sharpton said in concluding his eulogy. “At last. At last. At last!”
The assembly roared to their feet, and would again stand to applaud performances by Wonder and Aguilera, who filled the sanctuary with their voices.
“Out of all the singers that I’ve ever heard, she was the one that cut right to my soul and spoke to me,” Aguilera said before her performance.
Throughout the service, a portrait of James as a woman who beat the odds in pursuit of her dreams repeatedly emerged.
“Etta is special to me and for me, because she represents the life, the triumphs, the tribulations of a lot of black women all over this world,” said U.S. Rep Maxine Waters, a California Democrat.
“It does not matter who sang ‘At Last’ before or after Etta. It does not matter when it was sung, or where it was sung. ‘At Last’ was branded by Etta, the raunchy diva — that’s her signature and we will always remember her.”
James won four Grammy Awards, including a lifetime achievement honour, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. In her decades-long career, she became revered for her passionate, soulful singing voice.
She scored her first hit when she was just a teenager with the suggestive “Roll With Me, Henry,” which had to be changed to “The Wallflower” in order to get airplay. Her 1967 album, “Tell Mama,” became one of the most highly regarded soul albums of all time, a mix of rock and gospel music.
She rebounded from a heroin addiction to see her career surge after performing the national anthem at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. She won her first Grammy Award a decade later, and two more in 2003 and 2004.
James is survived by her husband of 42 years, Artis Mills, and two sons, Donto and Sametto James.
“Mom, I love you,” Donto James said during brief remarks. “When I get to the gates, can you please be there for me?”
Follow Anthony McCartney at http://twitter.com/mccartneyAP