"She can be so raucous and down one song, and then break your heart with her subtlety and finesse the next," said Bonnie Raitt. "As raw as Etta is, there's a great intelligence and wisdom in her singing." (Source)
Bonnie Raitt's review of James' career as a singer pretty much sums it up: James packed a punch in every performance, bringing emotion to even the simplest set of lines and making the potentially raucous into something totally over-the-top.
This tendency is controlled, but still noticeable, in "At Last," which she performs closer to a classic blues ballad than a rollicking soul or rock and roll number. The power within her performance of "At Last" is not necessarily the lively and accessible quality of the studio recording, but her lasting ability to perform the song with wit and emotion.
She's a grittier Aretha Franklin and a sexier Mahalia Jackson. And not to mention an older, wiser, and meaner Beyoncé.
So, maybe it's unfair to compare the great Etta James to anyone but herself. After all, when "At Last" came out in 1961, there was no real popular precedent for the blend of rock, pop, blues, and gospel (later tagged "soul") that James put out on Chess Records alongside legends like Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry.
Chess Records, a pioneering force in blues, rock, and R&B based in Chicago, was eventually surpassed in the shifting genre of soul music by hit-makers like Stax Records in Memphis and, of course, Motown Records in Detroit, whose weapons of dominance included Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
It didn’t help that James' personal career suffered in the mid-1960s as she descended into a life of addiction, emerging as a full-fledged performer only periodically throughout the rest of her life. Not only that, but Leonard Chess, the producer behind many of the company's hits, passed away in the late '60s. James stayed with the company until 1975, but hits on the level of her early-1960s career were rare.
For all her brazen toughness, sexually frank performances, and raunchy covers of classics like "Hound Dog" that seem written for her voice, it’s a beautiful twist of irony that "At Last," a wedding-friendly oldie, has become her permanent signature.