The words “at last” took on a new meaning when Beyoncé sang them to Barack and Michelle Obama at the 2009 Neighborhood Inaugural Ball.
Between the lines was the message that Obama’s election was a huge symbolic milestone for racial equality (although we’re sure he was glad on a personal level as well). “At Last” was performed at each of the 12 different balls attended by the Obamas on January 9, 2009. B’s performance became the most famous, though, probably because she was the reigning queen of pop and R&B through much of the 2000s.
Etta James was not as keen to celebrate this tender moment, however. See the Meaning tab for more on the singer’s angry reaction to Beyoncé’s presidential serenade.
Etta James might have had her own lonely days, but “At Last” was originally written for a fairly large group.
“At Last” became a standard covered by many singers after it was released as a big band pop hit in 1941 and appeared in the film musical Orchestra Wives in 1942. This relatively cheery love song was originally released as a B-side to another upbeat classic that came out of that musical, ”I’ve Got A Gal (In Kalamazoo)”.
The music is great, but plot-wise, Orchestra Wives is what it sounds like: a tale of the catty wives of a group of guys who play in a swing band. We’re certainly glad that type of entertainment died in the 1940s…
Being wrapped up in clovers sounds pretty soft and fuzzy, but James’ real love life was not quite so sweet.
James had a tough upbringing—absent parents, busy caretakers—and developed several addictions by the time she reached her teenage years. Her lifelong struggle with heroin and other drugs is now well documented in the mainstream, but less discussed is her related struggle with men. Her autobiography, Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story, gives up more than a few of the sordid details. In one chapter, she talks about getting clean from heroin in the 1960s, only to discover another addiction: “I wasn’t aware of how my other dependency—on rotten men—was just as dangerous.”
Prior to her death, James was married to the same man for over four decades (Artis Mills—also a sometime-junkie—who spent ten years in prison for heroin possession in the 1970s to 1980s), but they had their share of drama. As recently as 2008, James filed for a divorce from Mills, a move her friends chalked up to her increasingly poor health (James suffered from both leukemia and Alzheimer’s).
Random references to heaven are always welcome in soul and blues songs.
As with many love songs, “At Last” features a line that boasts a heaven-on-earth environment for the singer when her love is around. In the real world, though, and especially within the soul community, there has been a longstanding divide between singers like Etta James, who perform pop and R&B, often with racy love and sex themes, and her predecessors like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson, who strictly sing church gospel music.
Old-fashioned gospel came out of southern Christian churches, and often the morals of the churchgoers dictated against drinking or partying of any kind. The raucous, seductive musical movement known as the blues that emerged in the early twentieth century was something of a naughty trend from the perspective of strict gospelites. Even worse in the eyes of social and moral conservatives was the whole world of rock and roll and the sex and drugs that went with it.
That wasn’t the worst of it, though. The gospel community was struck repeated blows throughout the 1950s and 1960s as former stars such as Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls turned away from gospel to more popular genres. Etta James was raised on gospel music and was a star singer in her church as a very young girl, but she lived the life of just the sort of fallen child the church-lovers feared: drugs, men, and problems with the law were constants in her life. With all that rock and roll authenticity in tow, she also became one of the greatest rock, pop, and/or R&B singers of the century. You win some, you lose some?