Monday, November 15, 2010

50 years ago: Etta James “At Last” released

At Last

Etta James

Writer(s): Harry Warren (music), Mack Gordon (lyrics) (see lyrics here)

Released: November 15, 1960

First Charted: January 9, 1961

Peak: 47 US, 30 CB, 30 HR, 2 RB, 69 UK, 72 AU, 1 DF (Click for codes to singles charts.)

Sales (in millions): 1.0 US, 0.6 UK

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 76.9 video, 330.31 streaming


Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

The song “At Last” was written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, who also wrote “Chattanooga Cho Choo.” It was initially intended for the film Sun Valley Serenade, but studio head Darryl Zanuck thought there were already “too many big ones in this. Let’s save one for the next.” WK The vocal version of the song by John Payne and Lynn Bari was deleted from the film, but an instrumental version by the Glenn Miller Orchestra remained.

The vocal version was then introduced in the 1942 movie Orchestra Wives. This one also featured the Glenn Miller Orchestra, this time with vocals by Ray Eberle and Lynn Bari. Miller took a newly recorded version of the song, which still featured Eberle on vocals, to #2 on the Billboard charts that year. A decade later, Ray Anthony’s Orchestra would take it to #2 again on the Billboard charts with Tommy Mercer on vocals.

The song’s most noted version, however, was recorded by R&B singer Etta James in 1960. It is “the definitive version and her crowning achievement.” NRR Her version was based on an arrangement by Riley Hampton that improvised on the original melody. WK “One is most struck by James’s throaty vocal…but she never oversells the vocal. Instead she works her voice well with the timbre of the music, interjecting just enough romantic longing.” NRR

The song marked a change of labels for Etta James from Modern to Chess/Argo. It was also a change of direction for her. As she said, “I was no longer a teenager. I was twenty-two and sophisticated.” NRR She’d previously had hits with what she called “quickie teenage rockin’, humping and bumping ditties.” NRR Leonard Chess thought she “was a classy ballad singer and saw pop crossover potential in her; it was his decision to back her with violin orchestrations for the song.” SF Harvey Fuqua, formerly of the Moonglows and her boyfriend at the time, started playing standards for her and she “saw in that music the mysterious life that my mother had led when I was a little girl.” NRR

Celine Dion reached #16 on the adult contemporary chart with her version from her 2002 album A New Day Has Come. Beyoncé portrayed Etta James in the 2008 film Cadillac Records and performed the song on the soundtrack. It won a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance. It also reached #67 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #79 on the R&B chart. She also sang it during Barack and Michelle Obama’s first dance at the Neighborhood Ball on the night of his Presidential inauguration.


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First posted 7/14/2022; last updated 11/4/2022.

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