At the end of the 1960s, traditional R&B was moving in different directions: toward Motown and its pop-ready "Sound of Young America," and the grittier Southern soul of Stax/Volt and Fame Recording Studio. Etta James sided with the latter. Born January 25, 1938, as Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, California, she had moved from a gospel choir to a girl trio to the Johnny Otis Revue by the time she had her first R&B hit at 17. “I might have been a little church girl singing gospel, but I loved all the music – soaked it up like a sponge," said James. "I remember Charles Brown, who killed me with 'Drifting Blues.' I’d hear that good time music floating out onto the street, whether it was some smooth blues like T-Bone Walker or sophisticated jazz….[I’d] poke my head into a joint, amazed by the men in their stingy-brim hats and them gators on their feet, chicks poured into skintight dresses, laughing and flirting and carrying on.”
In the spring of 1961, “At Last” became a Number Two R&B hit and remains among Etta James' best–known recordings.
Composed by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for the 1941 movie musical Orchestra Wives, “At Last” was recorded in October 1960 by James after she and boyfriend/producer Harvey Fuqua, in a succession of hotel room rehearsals, had sung their way through a songbook of popular standards.
“I discovered I already knew most of the melodies,” the singer later recalled. “These were songs, you see, that my mother loved, songs I associated with Billie Holiday, songs that took me back to my childhood…I found I could sing them without losing my bluesy or churchy feeling.”
James' belting voice and knowing delivery meshed so perfectly with Fame Recording Studio's pumping horns and razor-sharp rhythm section that "Tell Mama," one of the first tracks they recorded in 1967, revived her career. It established James' style and tone for the next decade. All totaled, James launched 30 singles onto the R&B singles chart and placed a respectable nine of them in the pop Top 40. Etta James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.