What gospel, blues, and R&B legend was born Jamesetta Hawkins?

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Published January 25, 2024

Duh! is a weekly column that gives circuitous answers to obvious questions. If you dig it, you can find 100 more of these essays in the Geeks Who Drink book, Duh!.

Let the record show that Etta James owned and owns the song “At Last.”

Sure, it was written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for the 1941 movie Sun Valley Serenade, and played again by Glenn Miller’s band in the 1942 follow-up Orchestra Wives, both before James was in grade school.1 And sure, it was Miller’s trumpeter Ray Anthony2 who recorded the highest-charting version, climbing to #2 on the pop chart in 1952, before James cut her first record.

But James made it the title track on her 1960 debut album for the Chess Records imprint Argo, and it’s been hers ever since … except, you know, for that time Beyoncé stole it for a little while. Let’s check the tape:

  • She played James in the 2008 movie Cadillac Records, contributing three covers – most notably “At Last” – to the soundtrack album.
  • Before the film was even out, she sang it at the annual Fashion Rocks fundraiser with James in attendance, telling her, “if it weren’t for you, Etta James, artists like me would not have this opportunity.”
  • Most notably, it took on a whole new meaning when Beyoncé sang it to Barack and Michelle Obama at the pioneering president’s first inaugural ball in January 2009.

That last one is not only the most notable, it’s also the most (sort of) controversial. At a concert in Seattle a few days after the inauguration, James made it known that, hey, she would have been available if she’d been asked. But the way she said it became fodder for everything from gossip sites to respected publications: “I can’t stand Beyoncé. She has no business up there, singing up there on a big ol’ president day, gonna be singing my song that I’ve been singing forever.”3 She later said it was all a joke; later still, her family members suggested that it might have been an early symptom of dementia.

But if James truly did feel protective about her signature tune, she had good reason to. Having been raised by a series of variously abusive foster parents, and having sung professionally from adolescence, she had arrived at Chess Records ready for a reinvention. “So although this is a song about finding love,” the Financial Times explained last year, “for James it was about finding her emotional core and her place in music after such an unsettled existence. You can feel the ragged relief of homecoming in her tone.”

That sense of safe harbor wouldn’t… um, last. For the remainder of the ‘60s and ‘70s, James struggled with addictions and abusive relationships, touring and recording sporadically and with limited success. It wasn’t until the late ‘80s that she launched a real comeback, eventually winning her first Grammy in 1994 with a collection of songs originally popularized by the similarly hard-living Billie Holiday.

The year before that, James was inducted into the nascent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside Cream, Creedence, and Sly Stone. At the ceremony, she performed – what else? – “At Last.”

Take that, Beyoncé.

  1. She was born Jan. 25, 1938. Happy birthday! … is what we would say to her if she hadn’t died in 2012.
  2. Anthony is still alive; he turned 102 last week. Happy birthday! Your version isn’t as good as Etta’s though.
  3. She also called Obama “the one with the big ears” and said “he ain’t my president,” likely months before your uncle started in on that.