In 1941, the songwriting team of Mack Gordon and Harry Warren wrote the song ‘At Last’ for the film musical Sun Valley Serenade which was directed by H. Bruce Humberstone and stared Sonja Henie, John Payne, Glenn Miller, Milton Berle, and Lynn Bari. Mack Gordon was a Jewish-American composer and lyricist of songs for the stage and film. He was nominated for the best original song Oscar nine times in eleven years, including five consecutive years between 1940 and 1944, and won the award once, for ‘You’ll Never Know’. Harry Warren was an American composer and lyricist. Warren was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song eleven times and won three Oscars for composing ‘Lullaby of Broadway’, ‘You’ll Never Know’ and ‘On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe’. He also wrote the music for the first blockbuster film musical, 42nd Street.
In 1942, ‘At Last’ was rearranged and re-recorded and used in the film Orchestra Wives which stared Ann Rutherford, George Montgomery, and Glenn Miller. Glenn Miller was an American big-band trombonist, arranger, composer, and bandleader in the swing era, along with his Orchestra they performed ‘At Last’ in both musicals with vocals by Ray Eberle, and the song became a major big band hit in October 1942. Ray Eberle was a vocalist during the Big Band Era, making his name with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Gordon and Warren composed other hits together, including ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’, ‘Serenade in Blue’, ‘You’ll Never Know’, and ‘There Will Never Be Another You’. Many of their songs were for musical motion pictures, and ‘Young People’, ‘Fifth Avenue’ and ‘Tra La La La’ were all written for Shirley Temple. Before teaming up, they were successful composers on their own and wrote numerous other songs with other partners. Gordon wrote the lyrics and Warren wrote the music.
In early 1961, singer Etta James released what was to become her signature song, ‘At Last’, which reached number two on the R&B chart and number 47 on the Billboard Hot 100. Though the record was not as successful as expected, her rendition has become the best-known version of the song. Etta was a three-time Grammy winner and she was honored with The Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Etta was a pioneer of 1950s rhythm-and-blues and rock music, because her vocals had a mixture of power, pain and emotion and some people referred to her as the greatest of all modern blues singers at least before Aretha Franklin came along. Etta James began making hit songs in the pop genre in the 1950s, and then moved toward a rock and blues feel with Chess Records in the 1960s, and she continued churning out hits well into the 1970s having nine Grammy nominations that did not win starting in 1960 going up till 2001. In 1993, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and she got into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001. Over the decades, James’ hit R&B charts with 30 singles, and placed nine of those songs in pop music’s top 40.
Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, California, on January 25th, 1938 and her mother Dorothy Hawkins was 14 at the time. At five years old she stood out singing gospel music in the church choir, but did not take any of the other church stuff with her. She created her stage name by rearranging the letters in her first name. She had an unknown white father who she always thought was the legendary pool shark Rudolph Wanderone more famously known as Minnesota Fats. She had a turbulent life suffering numerous ups-and-downs in her career, hitting a career lull in the early 1980s. Etta’s mother was an underage prostitute, Etta struggled with obesity, heroin addiction, and she had to surmount troubled relationships with abusive men, and as a teenager she began running with gangs in San Francisco’s Fillmore District.
In 1954 at age 14, she rocketed out of ghetto life with a gimmicky little song she wrote, ‘Dance With Me Henry’ with two other girls in a trio called The Peaches. James was discovered by Johnny Otis and she was off on a lifetime of one-nighters in clubs and all-nighters on buses, stopping every so often to cut a record. Apparently other people made more money from her efforts than she did. She’s rumored to have been involved with B.B. King when she was just 16. James met Minnesota Fats around the time she was 50, but he didn’t confirm or deny being the father. He was old and broke and gave her his gold watch.
While Michael was singing with the Jackson Five family at the Apollo Theater, sharing a bill with legendary soul singer Etta James, he became fascinated with Etta’s performance that he kept watching her from off stage. Etta, not knowing who the young singer was, told him to go away, as he was distracting her during her performance. After the show, Michael crept into her dressing room and nervously approached the famous singer. When she asked him why he was watching her, Michael complimented James and told her that he had been staring intently because her performance was enthralling and he was in awe of her stage presence. Enchanted, James invited Michael into her dressing room and offered to show him some tricks.
This Little Light of Mine was written in the 1920s as a song for children by a white northern pastor/music teacher, Harry Dixon Loes. Some of the memorable names to do this song are Brenda Lee, Etta James, Odetta, Roger McGuinn, The Seekers, Aretha Franklin, Pete Seeger and Sam Cooke. As Meghan Markle and Prince Harry exited the chapel and kissed in front of the cheering crowds, Etta James’ version of the classic gospel song ‘This Little Light of Mine’ played outside to inspire all the guests.
Beyoncé played the role of Etta James for the 2008 Cadillac Records biographical drama film which was written and directed by Darnell Martin. The resplendent film explores the musical era from the early 1940s to the late 1960s, chronicling the life of the influential Chicago-based record-company executive Leonard Chess, and a few of the musicians who recorded for Chess Records. Beyoncé performed the song ‘At Last’ for the soundtrack. Beyoncé performed the song again for Barack and Michelle Obama’s first dance, which took place at the ball on 20 January and this ticked off Etta James as she thought that she should have been asked to sing the song. Etta James died from leukemia on January 20, 2012 at the age of 73.
My love has come along
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song
Oh yeah yeah
The skies above are blue
My heart was wrapped up in clover
The night I looked at you
I found a dream, that I could speak to
A dream that I can call my own
I found a thrill to press my cheek to
A thrill that I have never known
Oh yeah yeah
You smiled, you smiled
Oh and then the spell was cast
And here we are in heaven
For you are mine…