Etta James was a singer who managed to cross all the usual boundaries of style and genre. Big ballads were here forte, but she was also accepted as a Blues Singer, Jazz singer, and as one of the greats of Soul Music. Like so many artists of her generation, she had a hard start in life. Born to a young single mother in Los Angeles, in 1938, she was passed around various foster parents, sometimes suffering beatings and abuse, and began to sing in her local church. After touring with singing groups and bands, she was signed by Chess Records, in 1960, and her fame began to spread. Her background continued to plague her though, and she spent many years addicted to heroin.
Many of the songs that she made famous were recorded and covered live by other singers, but none ever got close to the raw power of Etta’s performances. Even modern-day powerhouses, like Beyonce and Christina Aguilera, were not able to top her performance of this song. Originally written for the 1941 film ‘Orchestra Wives’, Glen Miller had the first hit with ‘At Last’, but only as the ‘B’ side of another release. In 1960, Etta recorded this song, and it managed to cross the divide between Rhythm and Blues and Popular Music, and become a big hit in the mainstream music charts. Her version was so popular, and became so associated with her, that it is recognised as her ‘signature’ song.
Despite many other covers over the years, it is acknowledged that Etta James delivered the definitive version. She sadly died in 2012, but left behind a legacy of great songs and performances that will endure. For me, this love song was enhanced and made special by her voice, the feelings that you can hear in the vocal, and her effortless power.