Little about Etta James was as genteel as her best-known song, "At Last" She was known as a hell-raiser who spent years battling a drug addiction that she admitted took a toll on her great talent.

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Etta James, whose powerful, versatile and emotionally direct voice could enliven the raunchiest blues and the subtlest love songs, most indelibly in her signature hit “At Last,” died Friday in Riverside, Calif. She was 73.

Her manager, Lupe De Leon, said the cause was complications of leukemia. Ms. James, who died at Riverside Community Hospital, had been undergoing treatment for a number of conditions, including leukemia and dementia. She also lived in Riverside.

She was not easy to pigeonhole. She is most often referred to as a rhythm-and-blues singer, and that is how she made her name in the 1950s with records such as “Good Rockin’ Daddy.” She is in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.

She was also comfortable, and convincing, singing pop standards, as she did in 1961 with “At Last,” written in 1941 and originally recorded by Glenn Miller’s orchestra. Among her four Grammy Awards — including a lifetime-achievement honor in 2003 — was one for best jazz vocal performance, which she won in 1995 for the album “Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday.”

Regardless of how she was categorized, she was admired. Expressing a common sentiment, Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote in 1990 that she had “one of the great voices in American popular music, with a huge range, a multiplicity of tones and vast reserves of volume.”

For all her accomplishments, Ms. James had an up-and-down career, partly because of changing audience tastes but largely because of drug problems. She developed a heroin habit in the 1960s; after she overcame it in the 1970s, she began using cocaine.

She candidly described her struggles with addiction and her many trips to rehab in her autobiography, “Rage to Survive,” written with David Ritz.

She also had wrestled with complications since undergoing gastric-bypass surgery in 2002 to remedy a lifelong struggle with her weight. After that procedure, which actress Roseanne Barr had recommended, Ms. James lost 200 pounds. Before the surgery, her weight had gone past 400 pounds.

When she performed, she often had to be escorted on and off the stage in a wheelchair. “I was constantly worried that I was going to have a heart attack,” she told Ebony magazine in 2003.

Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles on Jan. 25, 1938. Her mother, Dorothy Hawkins, was 14 at the time; her father was long gone, and James never knew for sure who he was, although she recalled her mother telling her that he was the celebrated pool player Rudolf Wanderone, better known as Minnesota Fats. He neither confirmed nor denied it: when they met, he told her: “I don’t remember everything. I wish I did, but I don’t.”

With her blond curls and light complexion, she stood out in the African-American community, and she started to make a mark, at age 5, singing in the choir of St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles.

She was reared by foster parents and moved to San Francisco with her mother when she was 12, after her foster mother died.

She turned to secular music as a teenager, forming a vocal group with two friends. She was 15 when she made her first record, “Roll With Me Henry,” which set her own racy lyrics to the tune of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ recent hit “Work With Me Annie.” When some disc jockeys complained the title was too suggestive, the name was changed to “The Wallflower,” although the record was not.

“The Wallflower” rose to No. 2 on the R&B charts in 1954. As was often the case in those days with records by black performers, a toned-down version was soon recorded by a white singer and found a wider audience: Georgia Gibbs’ version, with the title and lyric changed to “Dance With Me, Henry,” was a No. 1 pop hit in 1955. Its success was not entirely bad news for Ms. James. She shared the songwriting royalties with Ballard and the bandleader and talent scout Johnny Otis, who had arranged for her recording session. He re-christened her by a simple flip of her first name. (Otis, a legend in his own right, died Tuesday at age 90.)

In 1960 Ms. James was signed by Chess Records, the Chicago label that was home to Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and other leading lights of music. She quickly had a string of hits, including “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “Trust in Me” and “At Last,” which established her as Chess’ first major female star.

She remained with Chess well into the 1970s, reappearing on the charts after a long absence in 1967 with the funky and high-spirited “Tell Mama.” In the late ’70s and early ’80s she was an opening act for The Rolling Stones.

The other song with which Ms. James became inextricably connected was “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which she said she co-wrote in 1968 with her friend Ellington Jordan while he was in prison. He outlined the song and James finished it, but for tax reasons she gave the cowriting credit to Medallions singer Billy Foster, to whom she was briefly married. It conveys the desperation of a woman who prefers losing her sight to seeing her man with someone else. Rolling Stone critic Dave Marsh included it in his 1999 book “The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made.”

It was subsequently recorded by artists including Rod Stewart, B.B. King, Koko Taylor and Beyoncé Knowles.

After decades of touring, recording for various labels and drifting in and out of the public eye, she found herself in the news in 2009 after Beyoncé recorded a version of “At Last” closely modeled on hers. (Knowles played Ms. James in the 2008 movie “Cadillac Records,” a fictionalized account of the rise and fall of Chess.) Knowles also performed “At Last” at an inaugural ball for President Obama in Washington, D.C.

Ms. James’ survivors include her husband of 42 years, Artis Mills; two sons, Donto and Sametto James, from a previous relationship; and four grandchildren.

Though her life had its share of troubles to the end — her husband and sons were locked in a long-running battle over control of her estate, which was resolved in her husband’s favor only weeks before her death — Ms. James said she wanted her music to transcend unhappiness rather than reflect it.

“A lot of people think the blues is depressing,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1992, “but that’s not the blues I’m singing. When I’m singing blues, I’m singing life. People that can’t stand to listen to the blues, they’ve got to be phonies.”

Material from the Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press is included in this report.