Hundreds of family and friends gathered on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012 at a Gardena church to pay tribute to legendary R&B singer Etta James, who died Jan. 20, 2012 of complications from leukemia and other problems.
Hundreds of family and friends on Saturday celebrated the life of legendary R&B singer Etta James.
She was remembered during a moving service at the City of Refuge church in Gardena as a woman who triumphed against all odds to break down cultural and musical barriers in a style that was unfailingly honest.
The Rev. Al Sharpton 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.
Sharpton on Saturday 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 heritage,” Obama's statement read.
other ailments, including dementia.
Among the stars performing tributes to James were Stevie Wonder and Christina Aguilera, who told the gathering that she has included “At Last” in every concert she's performed as a tribute to her musical inspiration.
Wonder performed three songs, including “Shelter In the Rain” and a harmonica solo.
James' rose-draped casket was on display, surrounded by wreaths and floral arrangements and pictures of the singer.
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,” Sharpton said.
The funeral came a day after hundreds of fans paid tribute Friday to the legendary R&B singer at a public visitation in Inglewood.
James, whose career spanned the latter half of the 20th Century and into the 2000s, died of complications from leukemia on Jan. 20 at age 73.
James, a South L.A. native, began singing as a child at St. Paul Baptist Church in South Los Angeles, where, at the age of 5 or 6, she was noticed by influential jazz pianist “Professor” James Earl Hines, according to City Councilwoman Jan Perry.
“Her rich voice influenced generations of singers who came after her, from Tina Turner to Bonnie Raitt to Christina Aguilera,” Perry said.
Family members were told late last year that James had chronic leukemia, which led to her death, according to her personal physician. Since March 2010, James has received round-the-clock medical care at her home in Riverside, where she moved in the late 1980s after living in Los Angeles.
Born Jamesetta Hawkins on Jan. 25, 1938, she recorded her first album in 1954 at the age of 16.
James and a trio she formed in her mid-teens called "The Peaches" caught the attention of bandleader Johnny Otis, launching her career at an early age.
She went on to enjoy a prosperous solo career through the 1950s, and, despite battles with heroin addiction, hit her peak in the 1960s, recording popular ballads that included her signature “At Last.”
The Grammy Award winner toured with Otis and other artists and recorded for Modern Records until the late 1950s before achieving her greatest success after signing with pre-eminent 1960s blues label Chess Records.
"All I Could Do Was Cry," "My Dearest Darling," "Trust in Me" and "Don’t Cry, Baby" were among the 60s hits recorded by James. The rise of Chess Records was the subject of the 2008 movie, "Cadillac Records," in which Beyonce Knowles played the role of James.
The singer battled drug addiction through much of her career, but launched a comback in the 1970s. Her 1973 album was nominated for a Grammy and she signed with Warner Brothers Records in the late 1970s.
At the 1984 Summer Olympics in LA, she performed during the opening ceremony. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
James continued performing into the 1990s, and "Let's Roll" won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2003. During that same year, James underwent gastric bypass surgery.
James won another Grammy -- Best Traditional Blues Album -- for 2004's "Blues to the Bone."
In addition to her husband and sons Donto and Sametto, James is survived by seven grandchildren.
The James family has asked that donations in her name be made to the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, a nonprofit group created for the historical and cultural preservation of R&B music. Donations can be sent to the foundation in care of Philadelphia International Records, 309A Broad St., Philadelphia, PA, 19107; or to P.O. Box 22438, Philadelphia, PA, 19101.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.