Los Angeles County – Etta James was remembered at a service Saturday attended by hundreds of friends, relatives and fans 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 rendition of “At Last” became an enduring anthem.
Perhaps most famously, President 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 wrote.
The Grammy-winning singer died Jan. 20 after battling leukemia and other ailments. She had retreated from public life in recent years, but on Saturday her legacy was on display as mourners of all ages and races converged on the City of Refuge church in Gardena, south of downtown Los Angeles.
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 has performed as a tribute to her musical inspiration.
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.
Throughout the service, a portrait of James as a woman who beat the odds in pursuit of her dreams repeatedly emerged.
“Etta is special to me and for me, because she represents the life, the triumphs, the tribulations of a lot of black women all over this world,” said Rep Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles.
James won four Grammy Awards, including a lifetime achievement honor, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.