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Etta James Farewell: Wonder, Aguilera, Sharpton Honor Music Legend

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The singer died Jan. 20 in Riverside of complications from leukemia

By BVN Staff –

Hundreds of fans swapped memories on Friday night as music icon Etta James’ songs boomed from chapel speakers during a public viewing at an Inglewood mortuary.

James' rose-draped coffin was on display, surrounded by wreaths and floral arrangements and pictures of the singer.

Riverside musician Jonathan Charles was among a steady stream of visitors who waited hours to pay their last respects to James.

“I get chills when I hear her sing “At Last”,” said Charles.

“She was an inspiration to musicians like me. She touched young and old music lovers around the world. She’s finally getting the respect she deserved,” he said. Elaine and James Stockett waited so long to meet the right person, says Elaine, so it was only appropriate that “At Last” be their wedding song.

When the Sockett’s heard that James had died, they honored her by re-watching their wedding video and dancing under the stars to the song she made famous.

“No other song could possibly capture the story behind our love, and the very long journey that we endured until we finally met,” Elaine said. “Etta James will forever live deep in our souls, as every time we watch our wedding video and hear that song, we will be reminded of our special day.”

Many of the messages, from those handwritten by schoolchildren to those printed off computers, bore the same words: "Thank you, Ms. James."

Best known for the rapturous joy or primal ache she brought to ballads of love and heartbreak such as “At Last,” “I'd Rather Go Blind" and "All I Could Do Was Cry," James, who died Jan. 20 at age 73, also was lauded for overcoming adversity and persevering long enough to see a career renaissance that included multiple Grammy Awards, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a hit Hollywood film based on her life and numerous other accolades.

At her funeral on Saturday, The Reverend 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.

Mr. Sharpton 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 heri tage," Mr. Obama's statement read.

The Grammy-winning singer died January 20 in Riverside after battling leukemia and other ailments, including dementia.

She had retreated from public life in recent years, but her legacy was on display as mourners of all ages and races converged on the City of Refuge church in Gardena, south of central Los Angeles.

Mr. 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," Mr. Sharpton said, referring to the era when racial segregation was the law in many US 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," Mr. 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," Mr. Sharpton said in concluding his eulogy. "At last. At last. At last!"

Stevie Wonder performed “Shelter in the Rain,” backed up by the City of Refuge choir, and then played the piece on his harmonica. He drew a standing ovation with “The Lord’s Prayer.”

In her turn on stage, Christina Aguilera told the audience that James was the singer she most admired and long tried to emulate, then elicited some of the same raspy, dusky tones that were James' hallmark as she sang "At Last," a song Aguilera said she includes at every performance in honor of her role model.

James’ raw vocal style also influenced successive generations of singers —male and female, black and whi te — including Aguilera, Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner and the woman who had the biggest hit single and album of 2011, British soul singer Adele.

"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.

James is survived by her husband of 42 years, Artis Mills, and two sons, Donto and Sametto James.

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