Fans, Friends, and Family Say Goodbye to Etta James

by on March 7th, 2015
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Private funeral services for four-time Grammy Award winner Etta James were held Saturday in Los Angeles. James died January 20 after a two-year battle with leukemia at age 73.

A public viewing Friday at Inglewood Cemetery drew hundreds of her fans. While the sound of her classic records wafted through the parking lot, mourners waited in line for hours to pass by the open casket. James was laid to rest in a simple black suit with gold embroidery, still looking every bit the diva.

Stevie Wonder, Christina Aguilera, and other celebrities came to pay their final respects. Stevie Wonder performed four songs, including “Shelter in the Rain,” and a deeply moving a cappella version of the Lord’s Prayer. James’ longtime group The Roots Band also took the stage to play for her one last time.

“Etta James cut right to my soul and spoke to me,” said Christina Aguilera before launching into a soul-stirring rendition of James’ signature song, “At Last.” Although some controversy has erupted over Aguilera’s cleavage-revealing dress worn to the funeral and an embarrassing spray tan mishap during her performance, the sincerity of Aguilera’s vocal tribute to James is not in doubt.

The President and First Lady – who memorably slow danced to “At Last” during the 2009 inaugural festivities – honored James in a written statement. “Etta will be remembered for her legendary voice and her contributions to our nation’s musical heritage,” President Obama said. “I know she will be sorely missed by all those who knew and loved her.”

The Reverend Al Sharpton delivered the eulogy, stressing how James found the strength to overcome so many obstacles in her life, including poverty, drug addiction, and time in jail. “The genius of Etta James is she flipped the script,” said Rev. Sharpton.

Born in 1938 to an alleged prostitute mother, Jamesetta Hawkins never knew her father – he left before she was born. (Family legend has it that her real father was the infamous pool shark Minnesota Fats.) Running away from home to join the Johnny Otis R&B Revue at age 15, Jamesetta – rechristened “Etta James” by Otis – never looked back.

Rev. Sharpton also addressed how her music crossed racial lines during the era of segregation. “Etta James helped break down the culture curtain of America before the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” he said in his eulogy. “She was able to get us to sing the same rhythms and melodies. We were humming the same ballads and understanding each other’s melodies way before we could even use the same hotels.”

U.S. Representative Maxine Waters (D-California) also spoke at the funeral about James’ positive influence on the lives of black women. “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.”

“It does not matter who sang `At Last’ before or after Etta,” Waters continued. “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.”

“You beat ‘em, Etta,” Sharpton said in a rousing close to the service. “At last, you can find peace now! At last, you can get the gratitude of the saviour now! Etta, you made it, you’re going home. At last! At last! At last!”


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