Memorial Service Honors Etta James as Triumphant Trailblazer

Hundreds of family, friends and fans attended a memorial service dedicated to Etta James.

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Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press
Via Associated Press

GARDENA, Calif. -- Etta James was remembered at a service Saturday attended by hundreds of friends, family 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 music became an enduring anthem for weddings and commercials.

Perhaps most famously, President Barack Obama and the first lady shared their first inaugural ball dance to a version of the song sung by Beyoncé. 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's statement read.

The Grammy-winning singer died Jan. 20 after battling leukemia and other ailments, including dementia. 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's performed as a tribute to her musical inspiration.

Wonder performed three songs, including "Shelter In the Rain" and a harmonica solo. James' rose-draped casket was on display, surrounded by wreaths and floral arrangements and pictures of the singer.

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.

He said James' fame and influence would have been unthinkable to a woman with James' background -- growing up in a broken home during segregation and at times battling her own demons.

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