Three decades after her hit songs “At Last” and “Tell Mama,” Etta James’s husky voice remained as big as ever. The rest of her body, however, had gotten even larger: By the late ’90s the 5′3″ singer weighed 400 lbs., unable to even stand onstage. “She was embarrassed because she had to come out in one of those little scooters,” says her son Sametto. What a difference gastric bypass surgery makes. “Now she comes onstage running and doing dances,” says Sametto. “I’m like, ‘Mom, you’d better sit down before you trip and fall.’ I never thought I’d see her like this.”
Neither did James, who had managed to leave her body in even worse shape than during her 30-year struggle with heroin. But since her successful 2001 surgery, she has shed 235 lbs. and kept it off. “It feels so good to be happy,” says James, 68, relaxing in her Riverside, Calif., ranch living room. The reenergized music pioneer, who has seamlessly blended blues, jazz and rock since the 1950s, has channeled that elation into a new album, All the Way, with passionate covers of songs like Prince’s “Purple Rain” and James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World.” “Etta always comes through with feeling,” says music biographer Peter Guralnick. “She coexists with Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday.”
Before her surgery, though, James’s continued existence was very much in doubt. “I didn’t think she’d make it another two or three years,” says Sametto. “She just stayed in bed in her nightgown.” After James’s 2000 appearance on Roseanne Barr’s talk show, the worried host pulled her aside. Barr suggested the singer visit surgeon Dr. Mathias Fobi, who had performed her own gastric bypass operation. When James got up the nerve a year later, “she had severe malignant obesity,” says Fobi. “If she didn’t lose weight, she wasn’t going to live much longer.”
While the operation was a success, James had difficulty adjusting to her smaller stomach. “I had trouble keeping food down—I started getting into an anorexia/bulimia kind of thing,” she says. “I went through a depression. You’re doing well, and then all of a sudden you’re not. I thought I was going to fail.”
She remembers the day three years after the surgery when she finally realized she was going to succeed. “I’d gotten tired of going to Dr. Fobi’s and getting onto his scale,” she says. “He had a jive scale that never gave a correct reading. People losing weight want to have it exactly right.” So James went out and purchased “a big meat-hanger scale,” and one day, she got on it and saw a reading of 200 lbs. “I kept weighing myself, and it kept saying 200 lbs.,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it.”
It wasn’t the first time James had vanquished her demons. In 1954 the L.A.-born singer (mom Dorothy became pregnant at 15; James believes her dad was pool player Minnesota Fats, though she never got up the courage to ask him) was discovered by bluesman Johnny Otis, who changed her name from Jamesetta Hawkins. Over the next decade she built up a catalog of hits—”Roll with Me Henry,” “At Last,” “Call My Name” and “I’d Rather Go Blind”—along with an addiction to heroin. “It took over my life,” she says. “You get up every day and look to score.” Her drug problems landed husband Artis Mills in jail from 1972 to 1982, when he took the fall for the couple’s arrest on heroin-possession charges. James made several trips to rehab, including a 17-month stint in the mid-’70s, without success. Finally, during a 1988 stay in the Betty Ford Clinic, just before her 50th birthday, this time for a codeine addiction, “I took back my life,” says James, who has been clean ever since.
Now she’s taken back her life yet again. These days James tours with a backup band that includes sons Donto (on drums), 38, and Sametto (bass), 29. And offstage she’s finally discovering the joys of clothes encounters. “I used to have all my clothes made, I was a size 30. Now I’m a size 10,” she says. “So I love to go shopping!” At last.