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Singer Etta James to be laid to rest on Saturday after private service

Stanley O. Williford | 1/25/2012, 5 p.m.

Mourners, fans and curiosity-seekers will get a final opportunity to say farewell to Jamesetta Hawkins, aka Etta James, on Friday during a public viewing at Inglewood Cemetery Mortuary, 3801 W. Manchester Blvd., from 5 to 10 p.m.

A private funeral service will be held Saturday at Greater Bethany Community Church, City of Refuge in Gardena.

James, the big-voiced singer who also had big battles with her weight into her 60s when she had gastric bypass surgery in 2002, died Friday in Riverside from complications of leukemia. She also had dementia and other medical problems, and through much of her life she struggled with drug addiction.

There is no one song that can encapsulate James' storied career as a singer, but the one most Americans might easily identify her with is "At Last," the jazzy ballad that Beyonce Knowles reprised in the film "Cadillac Records" and at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

"Etta James was one of the greatest vocalists of our time," Beyonce wrote on her website after James' death. "Her musical contributions will last a lifetime. Playing Etta James taught me so much about myself, and singing her music inspired me to be a stronger artist. When she effortlessly opened her mouth, you could hear her pain and triumph. Her deeply emotional way of delivering a song told her story with no filter. She was fearless, and had guts."

James began singing Gospel as a child at St. Paul Baptist Church at Naomi Avenue and 21st Street, and it was there that her gifts were first recognized and cultivated. Even as a child, she eschewed the sound of the females singers in the church and copied her aggressive style from the male singers.

"We had one of the biggest, baddest, hippest choirs anywhere, the Echoes of Eden," she wrote (with David Ritz) in her autobiography, "Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story." "Our choirmaster, Professor James Earle Hines, was my first and heaviest musical mentor, the cat who taught me to sing."

Among the stars who attended St. Paul were Gospel greats Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Sallie Martin Singers. Joe Adams, then a well-known deejay who would later manage Ray Charles, was also a member.

Even her song, "Something's Got a Hold on Me," was initially fashioned as a Gospel song, but turned into a boisterous rocker that showcased her big voice, according to the book.

But throughout her career, James was equally at home in straight Blues, R&B and Jazz, Country, Pop and almost any other musical form.

In her personal life, she seemed most comfortable in a rowdy milieu, and she cultivated a gruff, bawdy manner, although she admitted in her autobiography that she was really mushy inside.

See Etta James obituary at www.ourweekly.com