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Etta James: ‘She didn’t sugarcoat anything,’ son says

January 20, 2012 |  1:03 pm

Etta James' sons recall their motherThe two sons of blues and R&B great Etta James on Friday described their mother as a warm, loving woman who never sugarcoated the harsh, sometimes painful realities of life –- especially her own.

Donto and Sametto James were by their mother's side Friday morning when she passed away at Parkview Community Hospital in Riverside. James, 73, had been seriously ill for the last year and died of complications from her long-battle with leukemia, according to her personal physician.

"We find it a blessing that me and my brother were there to help here though this, to have a chance to tell her how we felt about her; to hold her and see her,'' said her oldest son, Donto James, 42, of Moreno Valley.

PHOTOS:  Etta James | 1938-2012

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 three years ago, with Donto on drums and Sametto playing bass guitar.

"She was real, that's for sure. She didn't hold anything back from us. She always told us the truth and how things really were,'' Donto James said. "She didn't sugarcoat anything, and we loved her for that.''

Growing up, Donto said he never realized how popular his mother still was until they went on tour in 2009. He was expected to see clubs filled with gray –haired fans, but most were young -- teenagers even, he said.

"My mother did things her own way, and I think a lot of people picked up on that,'' Sametto James, 35, said. "I know everybody says this, but she was one of the best moms a person could have. Really down to earth. You could tell her anything.''

Their mother's health deteriorated rapidly over the last year, during which Etta James underwent chemotherapy for her leukemia and suffered from a form of dementia. She was in and out of the hospital. Even in the hardest times, however, she never lost her headstrong spirit, her sons said.

Donto James and his stepfather, Artis Mills, had been embroiled in a legal dispute over her care and control of her $1-million estate. Under a recent agreement with Donto James and his brother, Mills remained as conservator of her estate. But a Riverside County Superior Court judge last month released only $350,000 for her medical costs, less than the $500,000 that Mills had requested.

Etta James had both of her sons during a previous marriage.

Etta James moved to Riverside from Los Angeles in the 1980s, living in a simple, ranch-style home perched on a rugged canyon slope with views of snow-capped mountains. The front yard is shaded by palms and towering succulents, and the only hint of fame is an aging Rolls-Royce still in the driveway.

Donto James said the period he remembers most fondly from his mother's long career were the hard times in the 1970s and 1980s, when she was largely forgotten and scratching by playing small clubs. Only the most loyal fans, including her large following in the gay community, helped get her through that stretch, he said.

"A lot of people didn't know she was still around,'' Donto James said.

Then, breaks started coming her way. At the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, James belted out "When the Saints Go Marching In" to a worldwide audience.

She joined other blues greats in a performance at the 25th annual Grammy Awards in 1983. Donto, a teenager at the time, remembers sitting in audience. Next to him were members of the rap group Run DMC, and they went wild when Etta James took the stage.

"That's went I realized my mother was truly a star,'' he said.

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-- Phil Willon in Riverside

Photo: Etta James holds a plaque of her star after an unveiling ceremony on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in April 2003. Credit: Nick Ut / Associated Press
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