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Family squabbles over Etta James funds

Stanley O. Williford | 1/19/2011, 5 p.m.

Music legend Etta James, known for her fire and feistiness, may be living through one of the most turbulent episodes in her life and not even know it. Diagnosed with both dementia and leukemia and under constant nursing care she likely has little or no idea of the controversy swirling around both her and her family.

While she languishes, a legal battle between her husband and her two sons has reverberated through the courts and the media.

On Friday, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Thomas Cahraman granted Artis Mills, James' husband of 41 years, $60,000 to continue her nursing and medical care until Feb. 24, when the court takes up the case again. Mills estimated he spends $30,000 a month on James' medical care, including a private doctor and 24-hour nursing.

It is probable that James' form of dementia is actually Alzheimer's. However, she reportedly continues to recognize family members. She is also undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia.
Mills maintains that his wife of 41 years is incapable of managing her money, but he is being opposed in court by the singer's sons Donto and Sametto over the control of James' $1 million savings.

Donto's claim is that his mother granted him power of attorney over the funds, but Mills is challenging that. However, Donto wrote in his court declaration that he does not object to money being released for his mother's care, but he wants the funds to be overseen by a third party "to avoid present and future family conflict and discrepancies."

Mills also maintains that his wife was not of "sound mind and judgment" when she granted Donto power of attorney. However, both Donto and Sametto say that she was thinking clearly. They state that they were touring with her, during the time she made the decision since both sons performed in her band.

About two and a half years ago, James was hospitalized in Los Angeles for abdominal surgery. She had been due to tour with both B.B. King and Al Green that summer, but decided to drop the dates based on dire w, when she was hospitalized with various ailments, including a blood infection.

She was born Jamesetta Hawkings to a 14-year-old mother and she never knew her father.

However, James has said she is convinced that her father was Minnesota Fats, the noted pool hustler, but she never had the courage to confront him. She claims there is evidence to support her belief.

When she was 14, the Blues singer formed a girl group called the Creolettes with two others and they were discovered by musician Johnny Otis. During the '50s she was a mainstay of the band, recording such hits as "Roll With Me, Henry" and "Good Rockin' Daddy." It was Otis who changed Jamesetta to Etta James, and from that point a star was in the making.

Despite a life roiled by a difficult childhood, drug addictions, petty crime, abusive male suitors, among other hardships, James has always been a survivor. As the '50s ended, she signed with Chess Records, where she recorded the iconic song "At Last," as well as such hits as "My Dearest Darling," "Trust Me," and "All I Could Do Was Cry."

In 1962, she recorded "Something's Got a Hold on Me." But James reported that both Leonard Chess and others associated with the company exploited her. Her addiction to heroin was so disruptive to her career during her early 20s, that she stopped recording from 1964 to 1966.

James' life spiraled increasingly out of control in the '70s, although she was able to arrive at live performances and recording sessions, when necessary. She began to indulge in petty crime to support her drug habit. She wrote bad checks and forged prescriptions. She was even known to steal from friends and associates at times. In 1974, facing several years in prison, James finally entered a drug rehabilitation program as a resident at Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital in the San Fernando Valley.

James' career has spanned five decades. She has won four Grammys and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. She was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003