Etta James, known for At Last, Tell Mama and scores of other songs, is ill. (Matt Sayles / Associated…)
The heartache and redemption that infused the life and soulful voice of Etta James, steeling her to survive the hardest of times, seem to keep playing on for the blues and R&B great.
FOR THE RECORD: Etta James:
A headline in the Jan. 15 LATExtra section about a court dispute involving the family of ailing singer Etta James stated incorrectly that she is 70 years old. James is 72 years old.
As James lies seriously ill in her suburban Riverside home, her husband and sons are locked in a court dispute over control of the singer's $1 million in savings. All parties said their only concern is to ensure James receives proper medical care.
James has dementia and is undergoing treatment for leukemia, requiring around-the-clock care for a fiery, headstrong performer who, friends say, appeared capable of surviving anything. Best known for her bluesy riffs and smoky nightclub ballads — including "At Last" and "Tell Mama" — James overcame drug addiction and weight problems and was on tour just two years ago, at age 70.
"She's in the fight of her life, and I wish she gets the best possible care,'' said Josh Sklair of Culver City, James' band leader for 25 years. "She's a rebellious spirit."
The family court fight began last year when James' husband of 41 years, Artis Mills, filed legal action to have three of the singer's financial accounts — worth just over $1 million — declared community property. Doing so would grant him access to the money and allow him to pay for her medical care, he said.
"I'm only trying to take care of Etta James," Mills said Friday after a Riverside court hearing on the singer's estate.
The petition is opposed by James' son Donto James of Moreno Valley. The singer granted him power of attorney in 2008, to be used if she became incapacitated. Donto James, born to a different father, said in a court declaration that he does not object to money spent on James' healthcare but that he wants an independent administrator to handle her finances "to avoid present and future family conflict and discrepancies.''
During Friday's hearing, Donto James' attorney, D.P. Sindicich of Los Angeles, questioned why the singer would have kept her personal and business bank accounts solely in her name all of these years.
Mills, court records show, is arguing that James was not of "sound mind and judgment" when she granted power of attorney to her son.
But one of the singer's other sons, Sametto James of Riverside, said his mother was mentally sharp at the time and, in fact, was on tour and performing across the country until 2009. Both of her sons performed in her band during the tour, with Sametto playing bass guitar and Donto on drums.
"She was fine. She knew what she was doing," Sametto James said after Friday's hearing.
During 2009 a concert in Seattle, the sharp-tongued singer created a uproar when she said that performer Beyonce was going to get her posterior "whooped" for performing James' 1961 hit "At Last" at President Obama's inaugural ball. (Beyonce portrayed James in the 2008 film "Cadillac Records.") James later said she was joking.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Thomas H. Cahraman postponed the case on Friday until Feb. 24 but ruled that $60,000 from James' accounts should be released to her husband so he "will have the resources to take care of this nice lady."
Mills estimates he spends about $30,000 a month on the singer's medical care, which includes a private doctor and around-the-clock nursing care at their home in Riverside's Woodcrest community.
James moved to the suburban Riverside in the late 1980s from Los Angeles , telling the Times in 1992 that she was "tired of burglar alarms on your car going off all night.''
The simple, ranch-style home is perched on a rugged canyon slope with views of snow-capped mountains. The frontyard is shaded by palms and towering succulents, and the back decked out with a pool and duck pond. The house blends in anonymously with the others in the neighborhood, the only hint of fame being a decorative wrought-iron gate out front and an aging Rolls-Royce in the driveway.
"I can look down and see the light. It looks like you're in Sicily, and you're looking down on Palermo. I love it. I can walk out of my house barefoot,'' James said in the 1992 interview.
In recent years, James has been in and out of the hospital. According to a declaration filed by her attending physician in November, her health continues to deteriorate.
James has a form of dementia, probably Alzheimer's disease, combined with symptoms of organic brain syndrome, although she does recognize her husband and children, the court records stated. She also was recently diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia and is undergoing chemotherapy, according to the court declaration.
James was born as Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, to a teenage mother and father she did not know. She was raised by church-going foster parents and went to live with her mother in San Francisco at age 12.
After falling in with a tough crowd, singing blues on street corners, James and some teenage girlfriends formed a vocal group and in 1954 she was discovered by R&B bandleader Johnny Otis and later moved in with Otis and his family. He helped produce her first hit.
James battled heroin and cocaine at times during her career but bounced back, aided by her unrelenting drive and golden voice, friends said. She's credited for being an inspiration for a vast lineup of singers, from Janis Joplin to Bonnie Raitt.
"She's a tough cookie and a great survivor,'' said Los Angeles author David Ritz, who with the singer co-wrote James' 1995 autobiography "Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story." "She's a force of nature."